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HR’s Critical Role in Creating Productive and Meaningful Workplaces
Thursday, September 15, 2016
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HR needs to be a major force in reshaping the workplace of the future, one that can place it at the decision-making and change-management table with CEOs. Traditional approaches to HR, including a focus on compliance, regulations, compensation plans, and performance reviews with occasional forays into people development, will do much to make HR as we know it irrelevant. 

I make this argument for two reasons. First, workplaces are becoming toxic for both employees and managers. This toxicity is evident in the following:

  • declining levels of employee engagement and productivity, as shown by numerous surveys in recent years
  • increasing incidents of incivility and bullying
  • significant burnout, stress, and mental health issues among employees and managers
  • ·overstimulating and multitasking work environments contributing to declining productivity
  • increasing incidences of CEO and senior management failures. 

The second and more extensive reason concerns huge changes in both the nature of work and talent development as a result of the rapid expansion of artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, and the Internet of Things. 

I wrote about the topic of the future of work in Psychology Today, The Financial Post, and CTDO, describing what has been termed the end of work, or at least the end of jobs as we have known them. The major reason for this impending phenomenon is technology in the form of AI, including its application in robots and the Internet of Things. AI will continue to depress wages and reduce the number of full-time jobs, say researchers C.B. Frey and M.A. Osborne of Oxford University. They argue that up to 50 percent of jobs will be replaced by machines. Similar forecasts have been made by the Pew Center for Research and the Bank of England. 

A concomitant trend will be the rise in the number of contingent workers, which is becoming part of what is known as the gig, piecework, or contract work economy. According to some estimates, as many as one in three U.S. workers (approximately 50 million) is a contingent or gig worker. Both private-sector and public-sector employers are increasingly replacing full-time permanent employees with these part-time contract workers. Among the negative consequences is the loss of security or benefits.

The loss of large numbers of traditional jobs is already having a dramatic impact on the nature of higher education and related training programs. In the past two decades, there has been a decided shift in the purpose of education toward the preparation for jobs. Bethany Moreton of Dartmouth College has shown that the fast-growing job market does not require college or university degrees. With the advent of AI taking white collar jobs in the professions and semi-professions, repurposing education will be an urgent need. Perhaps we will see a return to the importance of a classic education. Increasingly, we will see the private sector play a more significant role in education and training. For example, John Seely Brown, former chief scientist at Xerox, argues for the creation of what he calls “Cities of Learning,” where employers and public institutions such as libraries and museums collaborate to create learning environments and develop skills. This takes the concept of networked communities to another level. 

What Will Be the Impact on HR and Talent Management? 

In many ways, both leaders and HR practitioners are not prepared for such radical transformations. Here are examples of how these technological changes could affect the talent management function:

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  • Fostering innovation.

    The innovations created by AI for the most part will come from outside organizations, and the early adopters will give their organizations a competitive advantage. In particular, the use of AI to enhance collaboration will be a significant factor.

  • Managing increasing employee freedom.

    AI and other technology, such as smartphones, creates greater independence and decision making for employees at all levels. Managing both the logistics of that freedom and privacy and security issues will become a more significant challenge.

  • Using real-time big data.

    The use of big data for planning, financial, and other management processes is already under way. Its application to the HR and talent management functions has not yet been realized in big ways. This entails monitoring employee productivity, video surveillance, biometric monitoring of employee stress levels, more sophisticated recruit interviews by dispassionate robots, and predicting the likelihood of an employee leaving the organization.

  • Shifting a large portion of the HR function to managers.

    People-management decisions will be made closer to the employee because line managers will have access on their mobile phones to real-time people management data and the recommended actions. As a result, managers will “do most HR” at a higher level of quality, without the help of generalists or central staff. HR’s future may either be limited to compliance processes or shifted to a learning and development focus.

  • Developing innovative approaches to the use of a larger contingent or contract workforce.

    This would not only include creative approaches to things such as benefits and compensation but also workplace design, training and development, and the creation of collaborative networks.

  • Championing a new definition of work. Given the impact of technology on the workplace, organizations will re-examine how they define work and jobs for individuals. This includes the existing tension in work-life balance, but goes beyond that to how that definition fits in a future life where work may no longer be the core definition of one’s life. 

HR’s Challenge for Creating Productive and Meaningful Workplaces

HR has an opportunity to influence and create more productive and meaningful workplaces, or it may find itself obsolete. Here are some questions HR practitioners and consultants should consider:

  • What are some ways to fix toxic workplaces?
  • How can talent management strategies address leader failures?
  • If technology can revolutionize how we organize work—production, supply, labor, capital, and related issues—what advances would benefit people’s economic well-being? What advances could have negative consequences?
  • What might be the negative impact of technological advances on people’s personal and social lives, which could in turn have a detrimental impact on the workplace?
  • What impact will technological advances have on how education and training are currently structured and delivered?
  • What will be the impact of technology on how businesses are organized and on what work will actually look like for the majority of workers?
  • How will demographic and work-values shifts affect the workplace of the future?
  • How will we define work in the future?
  • How can we make workplaces that help people embrace and practice mindfulness for greater productivity and well-being?

Ray presented on this topic at the free HR innovators virtual conference.

About the Author
Ray Williams is president of Ray Williams Associates, a Vancouver-based company providing executive coaching, leadership mentoring, and speaking services. He also is author of Eye of the Storm: How Mindful Leaders Can Transform Chaotic Workplaces. Contact him at ray@raywilliamsassociates.com, @raybwilliams.
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