A good team is a vital element when working, whether in a big organization or a small startup. Any idea or project begins with a person, or rather when the right people meet at the right moment, which leads to a fruitful discussion. Therefore, human resources are one of the most crucial resources for any company, including innovative ones. Today we talk with Julia Ermolaeva, an experienced HR professional. About how to assemble a professional team, what role an HR specialist plays in this process, and current HR trends.

Key insights

  • A good HR specialist always starts the development of competencies with herself
  • The personal qualities of employees are more important than professional skills
  • Human communication is always primary, while technology only supports it
  • The goals of an HR specialist go beyond the scope of a single company

R&D manager at SAMSONOWA & Partners
Prepared and conducted the interview

Introduction

Julia, hello! Thank you for coming here today! I would like to ask you to first introduce yourself to our audience and tell us a little about yourself.

My name is Julia Ermolaeva, I am the Human Resources Director at the Engineering center of railway transport. This is a joint venture of Russian Railways and Sinara-Transport Machines Group. Overall, we have two main areas of work: 1) design of high-speed rolling stocks, and 2) development of a track design with 2.5 billion tons of tonnage capacity. We are a young, fast-growing company, and we are actively recruiting a team to work on our projects.

Speaking about my background, I started working in HR more than 20 years ago in a recruitment agency. From the very beginning, my work was connected with technical areas: engineering enterprises, production facilities. Then I worked as an in-house recruiter for a long time, and then became an HR specialist.  I have a technical background, I graduated from the Moscow Power Engineering Institute, after which I was retrained in the field of HR. Since then I have been constantly studying and continue to take various courses now. One of the most important places of work for me was the Engineering Center Airbus Russia (ECAR), where I participated in the formation of a team of design engineers from the very beginning. I worked in other large aircraft companies that design and produce aircraft equipment as well. 2 years ago I was offered an HR Director position here. So I changed the aircraft industry to the railway one. This field is new for me, but the task is the same – the formation of the team for the engineering center.

The role of HR specialists in forming an innovative team

The core team is highly important for the development of a new product in the company.
How does the HR department participate in the formation of a new innovative team?

The formation of a team of professionals is by far the main task of HR. At the moment, this is our main KPI as well. I believe there are two main elements here. First, before assembling a team, you need to develop the personal and professional qualities that you want to see in your employees first in yourself. Furthermore, you need to have a clear picture of what kind of team you want to create. If you are looking for people who think critically, who can adapt quickly to a changing environment, who are open to new ideas and innovations, then as HR I have to represent those qualities as well. Therefore, I am constantly learning, improving my skills to form a strong team and to meet my own expectations.

Second, to understand what kind of people you are looking for, you need to formulate the project goals: which product will eventually be created by which team? These goals need to be broken down into more specific tasks that the team will have to complete. Then you look for those people with the appropriate qualifications and competencies to perform these tasks.

Can you tell us a little more about how exactly you are looking for talents?
What resources and ways do you use?

We search for professionals in various ways, including classic well-known specialized websites. But this doesn’t work for all positions. For instance, these two methods work better: 1) when our employees recommend their former colleagues or someone they know personally, and 2) we directly find people from the industry and tell them about our projects: what positions are currently vacant, why it can be attractive for them.

However, it is not always possible to find the perfect candidate with technical and personal skills for an engineering position. In such cases, we first look at the key competencies (usually at specific technical expertise) and then provide opportunities to get the missing skills within our company.

Qualities that should be developed in employees

If we talk about the initiatives you organize for employees, can you give an example of some special, interesting HR initiative that you implemented in your company, and which brought good results?

There is something that I am starting to implement now and will keep supporting it because I think it is very important for the organization. I would like the company to pay more attention to the relationships within the team so that there is more attention to each employee as an individual. I believe it is time to move away from such explicit boss-subordinate hierarchies and develop a dynamic work environment of support and understanding. In my opinion, it is important to not only develop general professional skills but to focus on each employee personally. We should not only teach employees some professional tools, such as computer design systems or foreign languages but also help them develop themselves as a harmonious, holistic person. For example, help them develop the ability to think positively, find creative talents, share their ideas, even just maintain a healthy lifestyle. This is highly important, because if someone is in constant stress or fear, then they will feel the same at work. All their energy will be spent on negative thoughts.  It will be difficult for them to go beyond the usual search for solutions, get out of a conflict situation, and open their mind to new ideas or new projects. So, if it is in our power to help such employees improve their personal qualities, abilities, and their wellbeing, then we have to do it. Especially now, during the pandemic, when many people need emotional help. Speaking about personal qualities and pandemic situation, I would like to add one more example. Working remotely, you can’t constantly monitor your employees. But what you can do is rely on their conscience and personal responsibility. When you rely on these qualities, the work will be done better and more efficiently than when tracking the screen time of employees and constantly monitoring their every step.

Since we started talking about the pandemic and remote work, I would like to ask you to share your experience from last year. How did your company manage the transition from the office to the online format?
How did you change internal processes, and how did this affect communication between employees?

We worked entirely remotely for not so long, only for two months. Then we partially returned to the office, leaving the opportunity to work from home for those who wanted it. During these two months, we held regular meetings, we constantly communicated and were in contact with each other. In addition, at that time we had an interesting internal project – we developed our brand book. We did it as a team: we chose the company’s logo, colors, and visual design. It was quite fun for us. Maybe it helped us to unite and go through the crisis as one big team. We didn’t have problems with communication during this period.

As for the technological point of view, we quickly switched to a remote work format, thanks to our IT specialists. In the HR department, we continued to search and recruit employees online. We conducted remote interviews, and we still do it sometimes.

Primary things for the HR specialist

How do the new digital technologies affect HR processes?
How closely do you interact with IT innovations?

The past year and the remote work have forced us to use digital technologies more. We use online interview services, transform processes, and conduct online trainings. Yet, human communication always has the first priority in HR, while digitalization only provides some additional tools for this communication. For instance, I would never trust artificial intelligence to conduct interviews or selection processes. Moreover, I believe that video interviews are not as good as face-to-face, live interviews. Of course, we use Skype, and with its help we have hired a lot of people. But if there is an opportunity to invite candidates in person, we definitely do it. We meet in person to understand them better and at the same time to give them an opportunity to get to know us, to feel the atmosphere in which we work.

How do you think the coronavirus has affected the HR function, communications,
and internal processes within the company?

The past year and remote work have forced us to use digital technologies more. We use online interview services, transform processes, and conduct online training. Yet, human communication always has priority in HR, while digitalization only provides some additional tools for this communication. For instance, I would never trust artificial intelligence to conduct interviews or selection processes. Moreover, I believe that video interviews are not as good as face-to-face, live interviews. Of course, we use Skype, and with its help, we have hired a lot of people. But if there is an opportunity to invite candidates in person, we definitely do it. We meet in person to understand them better and at the same time to allow them to get to know us, to feel the atmosphere in which we work.

The current market and the mission of HR specialists

Let’s now talk about the HR function in general, what is happening now in the labor market.
What trends can you identify in the HR area at the moment?

From my own experience, I can say that now there is a shortage of specialists and professionals in the labor market, especially for solving engineering and technical problems. I would not call it a trend, but rather our reality. For example, if we talk about recent graduates, they have a large gap between what they learned in universities and what they face at work. This gap between classical technical education and the reality of business is huge. It is not just about the issues of digitalization and automatization, but rather about the way of thinking and the approach to solving new problems. Unfortunately, classical education does not teach you to solve complex, wired problems that you definitely face at work. Even the tools that students use during their studies are very different from the tools that are needed later in companies. I believe that all the processes of automation and digitalization should be included in the education program not on a theoretical level, but on a practical, applied level, which includes learning on cases and real tasks. In my opinion, this is a very important area for personal development.

What or who in your opinion can contribute to reducing this gap? Is this the responsibility of the HR specialists or universities?

I once tried to communicate this idea to the universities, but it turned out to be very difficult. Most of the people who work there are professionals with extensive experience. However, many of them are already quite old (especially those in high-level positions), and they are not ready to change themselves or the established training programs. Thus, now this gap between education and the requirements of the industry is closed by the companies themselves, providing the necessary training for their employees. And my goal as an HR specialist is to help get the necessary knowledge and skills, to provide training opportunities for recent graduates, whom we invite to work.

What changes in HR are coming in the next 5 years, especially if we talk about HR in the technical and engineering fields? In your opinion, what should we be prepared for?

I believe we, as HR specialists, face two challenges now. First, we have to promote the development of more qualified professionals for the entire industry and not only for one specific company. It is necessary to help professionals grow. The government has to support the industry as well – to provide enough demand and interest in the products. If people have no place to apply their knowledge, then this knowledge is lost. On the other hand, if the industry and the demand for qualified specialists grow, then the task of HR is to create a pool of professionals who are able to solve complex intellectual tasks.

Second, as I already mentioned, HR should contribute to the personal growth of each employee. In this way, employees do not feel lost in the company but feel needed by the company. It is a very important area for HR – to help employees develop mindfulness and awareness. It helps to combine professionalism and personal qualities.

I believe HR tasks are broader than the scope of a single company. The needs of the market are changing rapidly, and companies do not exist in a vacuum. Therefore, HR specialists should participate in the development of the professional labor market not only within their company. We need to contribute to the development of the industry as a whole. For example, right now I meet people with whom I already worked 5-10 years ago, and I invite them to work with me again. They have grown professionally during this time. I am happy to think that we invested in them enough then: through training and development. These investments pay off, not only within a particular company but within the engineering industry as a whole. If you give more good things to the world around you, then you will get it back, maybe even more!

Space

At SAMSONOWA & Partners, we notice that approaches to talent management are constantly being transformed, adapting to the modern world and contemporary ways of thinking. Such methods of motivation as a promotion or financial rewards are no longer enough, they do not correspond to the values of specialists. In our training module “Talent Pool” , we consider current methods of human resource management and employee motivation both for R&D and for companies in general.