Lately, much ado has been made about the future workplace.
News reports detailing the effect that robots, artificial intelligence (AI) and technology will have on the labour market have overwhelmed HR professionals across the world, according to Bill Greenhalgh, former CEO of Ontario’s Human Resources Professionals Association (HRPA).
“It’s like trying to drink water out of a fire hydrant,” he said. “There’s just so much of it.”
Nevertheless, the “intelligence revolution” has arrived, and HR professionals are expected to react accordingly, said Greenhalgh during a presentation at the HRPA’s annual conference and tradeshow in Toronto last month.
Within five years, technologies such as chatbots, driverless cars and blockchain will be mainstays within the workplace, he said.
The upheaval will be akin to that of the 19th-century Industrial Revolution when the first jobs framework was created and workers began moving away from farms in favour of factories and cities, said Greenhalgh.
“The Industrial Revolution was all about brawn, about recognizing manufacturing processes,” he said.
“The intelligence revolution is all about brain.”
And the latest work revolution will redefine what a job is, according to Greenhalgh.
“We’re seeing that, to some extent, with the gig economy, the contract economy,” he said. “A lot of jobs being created right now are contract or part-time, so we’re getting a kind of redefinition.”
“The idea of a job will change and reform, and it will be driven by the intelligence revolution.”
Much of the focus surrounding AI’s arrival in the workplace is focused on the effect it will have on workers — with millions of jobs expected to disappear, said Greenhalgh.
“It’s going to change how jobs are done and fundamentally change the nature of what a job is,” he said. “And that’s an important thing for organizations to deal with.”
“The key condition of what will be affected is whether it’s a routine or a creative job.”
However, the number of jobs that will be affected remains an elusive number for experts to pin down, said Greenhalgh.
“All of these studies say something different. They’re kind of open-ended — a bit self-serving, in a way.”
An estimated 500 million jobs are projected to disappear by 2040, though many experts do not simultaneously predict the number of jobs that will be created in that same timespan, he said.
Another forgotten statistic is that 1.2 billion humans are expected to “disappear” in the next 20 years as the world’s population ages more rapidly, said Greenhalgh.
Realistically, the job losses alone will amount to a one per cent reduction per year — a very manageable number, he said.
For Greenhalgh, the job-decimating effect of technology isn’t as bad as the reports may appear.
“Companies disappear with great regularity,” he said. “You can imagine the impact that companies disappearing have had on job losses. It’s not automation that caused job losses — it’s companies missing the boat.”
“AI is not all it’s cracked up to be because there’s human characteristics… no matter how intelligent these machines are, emotion and feelings are human nature alone,” said Greenhalgh.
Still, “fantastic opportunities” will be created as a result of this type of technology, and the first organizations to adapt will experience more opportunities and greater rewards, he said.
Advice for HR
There is a middle ground for HR to tread that falls somewhere between full-blown panic and maintaining the status quo, said Greenhalgh.
Business clarity — deeply understanding what business you are operating in — is the first step, he said. For example, wristwatch companies are not necessarily about making watches, but rather having the ability to tell the time or denote wealth, depending on brand type.
Once the business purpose is defined, it’s easier to understand what type of disruptions could affect the company, as well as identify which areas of the organization could change, or where technology such as AI could be integrated, said Greenhalgh.
“The message (to staff) can be very upbeat, saying future work is going to be very much more interesting because the mechanical stuff will be taken away.”
Exploration and evaluation of your organization is another step HR practitioners can take to prepare, he said.
Time should be dedicated towards determining future skill sets and training opportunities to meet those needs.
Alongside dealing with resistant workers who may need to alter their work habits due to an outdated role, HR should introduce steps towards lifelong learning, said Greenhalgh.
It helps to delegate issues into three “boxes” including managing the present, selectively forgetting the past, and creating the future, he said.
“It’s all about HR because it’s all about people,” said Greenhalgh.
“HR has to be involved in that. This is not a technology issue, it’s a people issue... The challenge is how do we keep running today at peak performance while, at the same time, plan for the future?”
The future of HR
Technology is merely one component that will shape HR going forward, said Rob Catalano, co-founder of Toronto’s WorkTango, an HR-tech company. He also presented at HRPA’s conference.
There’s no doubt HR solutions need to change in response to the disruptions affecting the workplace today, he said.
For example, for a century, employers found staff through newspaper job postings. But over the past 20 years, that solution shifted to online job boards and, more recently, LinkedIn, said Catalano.
Alongside tech offerings, humanity and business philosophy also need to be considered in HR. Technological options such as AI and machine learning are merely enablers, unsuccessful in isolation, he said.
“When we think about building that structure for the future of HR, we have to think of the future of humanity, not just the business and the organization, or the technology we’re using.”
Practically, that means HR should be engaging employees when shaping policy, making sure their workplace is people-centric, and considering employees’ needs as foremost, he said.
Focusing too much on the employee-HR experience is self-serving, as opposed to setting policy to define the worker experience in general, according to Catalano.
“Only one per cent of the time are they interacting with HR,” he said of employees. “Ninety-nine per cent of the time, they are interacting with the other employees in your organization.”
As for philosophy, HR practitioners should look to develop a corporate passion and people strategy, rather than focus on a traditional business model, to allow for shifts in business focus as disruption arises.
“Build purpose, but find it first,” said Catalano. “It’s up to you to infuse that into everything you do.”
Agility should also be a priority for HR going forward, he said, pointing to quicker build-and-release cycles and the redundancy of annual reviews such as typical performance management processes.
“This agility is necessary for us to be successful and it’s really what the future of work looks like,” he said. “No one’s doing anything annually anymore.”
“Change sucks but, at the end of the day, we need to adapt to it,” said Catalano. “If you don’t have the right strategy, focus, approach… you can’t get to success.”
“When you reimagine the future, you reinvent it. We can’t continue to do the same things. Our solutions need to change.”
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