The Relationship between Emerging Technologies on Work, Workflow, the Work place and the Human Resources Function

Season’s Greetings to you all
Baptista Sarah Gebu (Mrs.)

The Future of Work Capsules

Happy May Day to all workers as the world celebrates International Workers Day 2021. As we celebrate the day, we need to be very mindful of the future of work trends and how that can impact both positively and negatively on our jobs in the very near future.  At the just ended Ghana’s most respected CEO’s breakfast series on the theme “business adaptability and sustainability in 2021” (which I joined virtually), I wish to reiterate that first knowing about trends and our way around these trends is what will support business adaptability and sustainability conversation. How can one adapt or sustain something that is not known and understood? We need to be flexible as financial institutions to adapt to change.

The term “e-HR” describes the transformation of HR service delivery using web-based technology. Now HR professionals must not only master traditional HR skills and knowledge, but also have the ability to apply that knowledge via technology. Today the face of HR is often a portal, rather than a person. Almost all firms now provide universal access to HR services through technology and web-based applications, dramatically changing the practice of human resource management. These changes often result from the need to cut costs and expand or improve services. Recent research shows organizations that successfully adopt sophisticated HR technology tools outperform those that do not as put forward by the CedarCrestone 2010 HR Systems Survey.

Technology supporters claim technological advancement will continue to have far-reaching effect on work. But how can we examine the effects if any between these emerging technologies on work, workflow, workplace and the human resource functions. Can our employees and the various organizations we support navigate these changes? Keeping up with the latest technology trends will place organizations in the right positions. Be agile, the future of work is going to happen in the cloud.

As we celebrate May Day this year, let us discuss the relationship between emerging technology and work, workflow, workplace and the HR functions. There is evidence that suggest that some organizations will demand or are demanding robotics and artificial intelligence (AI)  to enable them understand simple repetitive tasks as well as undertake some complex decisions quickly and more accurately. When it comes to predictive analytics which many will run away from, these same robotics and AI are supporting the call for these organizations. Have you thought of its use in implementing some flexible working practices as virtual work? This notwithstanding, human resource professionals must be very concern about how employees can acquire the right skills set to enable them compete in this future as well as addressing possible negative consequences on the employee wellbeing.

What technological trend is directly and likely to affect work, the workflow and the work force and what will be the role of human resources in all this

Digital platforms are used commonly by many and are central to online market places. These platforms can be seen used by the likes of Uber, Amazon, E-bay and many more. According to (Morgan, 2014), these digital platforms are likely to impact work, workflow, the work force as well as the human resource function.

Artificial intelligence and machine learning according to government office for science (2015), found out that organization will prefer applying them to data analysis and predictive analytics.

For industries within the construction, healthcare, oil and gas and aerospace for instance (Higgins, 2017), found out that augmented and virtual reality (AR& VR) are playing significant roles.

Wearable devices are increasingly been used in the workplace to help improve employee awareness about their personal wellbeing, tract progress and plan efforts to sustain their engagement (Moore & Robinson, 2016).

Wright (2018) found out that block chain was suggested as being used for transactions and information exchange that requires a high level of security. How are our friends operating within the financial sector preparing for this change? Be agile. Are regulators well informed about what time is it?

These and many more of the identified emerging technologies will present challenges to work, workflow and the workplace. Marler and Parry (2016) also found out that the human resource functions and our people’s management broadly will be affected by these emerging technologies as they present challenges.

There are enormous financial incentives for employers to increasingly automate their (currently human) processes (Markoff, 2011) and that advances in automation could dramatically change the nature of jobs available (PWC, 2017). Realistically, whether a task can be automated depends on the ability of coders to write a set of procedures that will improve the problem specification and account for every possible contingency (Frey & Osbourne, 2017). Despite this limitation, automation is increasingly being used in areas that require the storing or access of information (Frey & Osbourne, 2017), such as in fraud detection, medical diagnosis (Cohn, 2013; Wolcott, 2018) and law (Markoff, 2011). In addition, the automation of manual tasks is increasingly widespread, including tasks such as driving (Autor et al., 2003; Veres et al., 2011), cargo handling (Bloss, 2011) and mining (Frey & Osbourne, 2017).

The role of HR practitioners in the process of automation may not be very clear to many, but HR could play a key role in identifying tasks (and thus eventually roles) that could be automated. Perhaps more important however, is the HR role of addressing the impact of job losses as a result of automation (Frey & Osbourne, 2017; PWC, 2017).

Not only should HR practitioners be central to supporting employees through a period of uncertainty while such decisions are made, they should also be responsible for considering how employees can be re-skilled or up-skilled in order to replace obsolete skills so that they can be retained in the workforce. It is a fact that the type of knowledge, skills, and abilities required by organizations will change. For example, the need for routine cognitive and manual skills is decreasing, while the need for non-routine cognitive and manual skills has increased. Research suggests that organizations will need a workforce with increased skill variety, autonomy, and interdependence, as well as increased cognitive, creative, technical and social skills, (Liu & Grusky, 2013;  Wegman et al., 2018), to complement machines (MacCrory et al., 2014) and to perform the remaining tasks that are not automated (Makridakis, 2017).

The HR function has a key role in ensuring the recruitment and development of these competencies as well as in designing leader development programmes that consider the new challenges related to managing employees in a modern work context and in coordinating humans and machines.

There is considerable evidence that organizations are increasingly offering flexible working practices in order to meet employees’ needs and to reduce costs associated with having a physical workplace. It is clear those developments in internet, and more recently mobile, technologies have increased the ability of individuals to work remotely and therefore out of usual office hours.

However, it is also important to realize that technology is not the sole driver for an increase in flexible working as this has also been influenced by higher numbers of women in the workplace and by flexible pension arrangements (Atkinson, 2017). The management of flexible working policies and creation of career and performance management systems that ensure that employees are not disadvantaged by working flexibly are undoubtedly the remit of the HR function.

Research further suggests that flexible working arrangements, while offering employees freedom about where and when they work, can also lead to work intensification. The increase in remote working has led to a perceived decline in the physical workplace, although data would suggest that in most companies the take-up of home working has been slow before the pandemic. One reason for this might be the importance of face-to-face interaction, which has been shown to be necessary in order to sustain trustful relationships between employees (Forbes, 2013), maintain low stress levels (Chron, 2017) and improve employee performance (Waber et al., 2014). Technology through the use of some tech tools is offering that opportunity to virtually connect for that same important one on one meaningful interaction. This time round, distance isn’t seen as a challenge. We connect seemingly.

HR practitioners therefore need to think about how the organization might benefit from the flexibility that this approach might offer, while still ensuring that employees are not put at risk from a lack of support and employment security. It is important here that employers take a responsible, and longer term, approach to using these contracting arrangements, rather than focusing solely on short-term cost savings and flexibility.

With the effects on employee well-being, employers need to consider a possible downside of the increased use of technology in the workplace. Indeed, research has proposed that the move to a workforce that is increasingly connected and contactable, along with the increase of global working, means that work is becoming nearer to 24/7 (Deloitte, 2016) and that the potential for employees to overwork (and thus damage their wellbeing) is increasing. Media coverage demonstrates that employees are concerned about this prospect. For example, employees from Google referred to connectivity as an “electronic leash” that damages their wellbeing (Independent, 2017), while other reports have linked increased connectivity with stress and burnout (The Guardian, 2016). The HR function is central in the process of addressing such concerns as policies relating to employee wellbeing are to a large degree their responsibility. I say to clients in pandemic times, it’s should be normal to anticipate delay responses to correspondence for instance as most employees work from home. Many more countries are still on lockdown. Most women may have to attend to the home and children whiles working from home as well. HR needs to understand the broader conversation, relate and propose practical and workable people’s policy to support employees. Indeed, some companies such as Daimler have introduced policies to encourage employees to disconnect outside of working hours (HR Magazine, 2017). However, it is difficult to enforce such ideas, and especially to balance the need for choice of when and where to work with the risk of overwork. But policy can help address the burn out. France for instance has passed “the right to disconnect” law not making it mandatory to respond to work e-mails outside normal working hours. Legislature becomes very important. As we celebrate this year’s May Day,  I take this opportunity to appeal to government authorities, policy makers and HR’s to consider the effect emerging technologies has on work and evaluate vis-à-vis the relation that exist between these to support employees to excel.

The above examples suggest a role for the HR function in navigating the changes to work, the workplace and the workforce that are driven by technological advancement. However, it is important to also note that emerging technologies have been shown to also influence the way that organizations undertake their HR activities. The principal HR functions of attracting, selecting, developing, motivating and retaining talented employees in organizations remain important, but potentially require different approaches in the future world of work.

Baptista is a human resource professional with a broad generalist background. Building a team of efficient & effective workforce is her business. Affecting lives is her calling!  She is a Hybrid Professional, HR Generalist, strategic planner, innovative, professional connector and a motivator. You can reach her via e-mail on [email protected]   You can follow this conversation on our social media pages Facebook / LinkedIn/ Twitter / Instagram: FoReal HR Services.   Call or WhatsApp: +233(0)262213313.  Follow the hashtag #theFutureofWorkCapsules #FoWC

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