As we stand on the brink of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, defined by rapid advancements in the fields of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and automation, many of us are plagued by feelings of uncertainty and anxiety. It may seem like each day brings with it new job loss predictions, new percentages and more fuel to drive said anxiety; giving us little respite from the perpetual worrying that defines the current era. However, what the news won’t often tell you is that these advancements also carry with them immense opportunity to thrive not just as individuals but also as employees; and no other department is better able to help us do so than HR.
Automation & Job Losses
In March of this year, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) published a comprehensive report on the future of jobs in our fast-approaching world of automation and AI. Following an analysis of 20 million people in England, the report concludes that as many as 1.5 million workers are at high risk of some of their existing work duties or tasks being performed by a machine or an algorithm in the future.
The weight of these numbers has already started affecting workers in some professions across the whole of the UK; namely checkout assistants. You may have noticed from your own shopping excursions that purchasing products now involves wrestling with self-service machines (that insist that you haven’t placed your item in the bagging area when you have) more so that it involves dealing with human staff. And you wouldn’t be wrong since 25.3% of checkout assistant jobs have disappeared between 2011 and 2017.
Similarly, there is a niggling question mark over the future of a very large number of jobs in HR. The very same ONS report concludes that nearly three in five (58%) of administrative HR roles could fall victim to automation; with that number being 40% (or two in five) for HR and industrial relations officers.
Now, you may be thinking that we’ve misled you into reading another pessimistic, robots-are-here-to-steal-our-jobs type of article. Incorrect. However, numbers are numbers after all, and we can’t exactly take on the ONS and tell them they’re being too defeatist. The fact of the matter is that yes, AI and automation carry with them multiple risks and yes, we’ll undoubtedly see things change in a way we’ve never witnessed before, but we’re here to tell you why that could be just the opportunity all of us have needed.
AI, Automation & Businesses
In April, the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development (CIPD) published its own report, ‘People and Machines: From Hype to Reality’. Running counter to prevailing approaches to our technology-enabled future, the report adopts a more hopeful tone, stating that while ‘this latest era is changing the nature of work in new ways […] AI and automation can result in new integrations and co-operation possibilities and challenges, which can create new types of jobs and services’. In other words, while we’re set to undergo significant changes in terms of how we work, where we work and maybe even when we work (see flexible working), these changes are also likely to positively impact our working lives.
There is considerable evidence to suggest that AI and automation will bring with them immense gains, particularly in terms of jobs, skills and our overall quality of life. According to ‘The Future of Jobs 2018’, a report by the World Economic Forum (WEF), by 2022, jobs arising as a result of technological growth are very likely to offset the number of jobs we’re set to incur. So, while 75 million jobs globally are projected to be lost, 133 million new ones may also emerge. What’s more, these new jobs will be better ‘adapted to the new division of labour between humans and machine’, making them far more ‘future-proof’ and stable than our current jobs.
Nevertheless, as the report highlights, it is paramount for businesses to take an active role in supporting their existing workforce through reskilling and upskilling in order to help them transition smoothly to a more automated way of working.
How to Transition to an Automated Workplace the Right Way
CIPD’s above-mentioned report also stresses the importance of businesses taking an active stance in engaging with cutting-edge technology set to enter the workplace and helping their employees do the same.
Furthermore, ‘businesses need to do more than configure the technology, plug it in and switch it on’. The responsibility now rests on employers to start mapping the roles needed to make sure new technologies entering the workplace bring real value to employees as well as the business.
So far, a third of UK organisations (32%) have begun the process of investing in AI and automation, choosing to seize the opportunities they offer instead of passively awaiting the inevitable. As a result, 35% of employers saw jobs increase in the areas affected by AI and automation, 25% saw jobs decrease while the remaining 30% noted no change at all (CIPD report).
As far as employees are concerned, the results have also been mixed. 54% said that AI and automation had not helped them improve their work, 28% claimed that it had while 19% weren’t sure. On the other hand, 45% of employees had stated that new technology had made their work faster and 43% said they were learning new things.
What’s safe to conclude based on these statistics is that both and employers and employees remain unsure of how to fully take advantage of their newly adopted technologies. This is unsurprising given that, again according to the CIPD, HR is the department least likely to be involved in discussions regarding the implementations of new technology. This is problematic as it implies that, so far, effective people strategies haven’t been at the top of organisations’ agendas when seeking to incorporate AI and automation into their workplaces.
The Importance of HR Involvement
The active involvement of HR professionals is key to successful applications of technology. After all, no other department is better suited to managing performance management, employee motivation and training as HR. The changes and challenges that new technology implementation is guaranteed to throw up have to be managed with employees in mind as they are the business’s main asset and can be the deciding factor between the business itself thriving or struggling following engagement with AI and automation.
HR opinion and recommendations, therefore, have to be considered when new tech strategies are discussed as HR, in particular, can effectively ‘orchestrate the debate on who does what, when and where [when] ensuring people are appropriately skilled and supported’, according to CIPD’s report.
However, in the event of organisational unwillingness to include HR in such discussions, it is up to HR leaders themselves to ensure their voice is being heard and to make a strong case for their involvement. The long-term repercussions of minimal HR contribution can be debilitating for the department, the employees as well as the business itself. After all, as mentioned above, any new technology in the workplace will have a direct impact on the employees; and failing to take this fact into account is almost guaranteed to leave its footprint in anything from employee performance and motivation to increased stress and significant dips in productivity.
What Can HR Do Now?
While the importance of HR involvement cannot be disputed, it’s equally important to note that HR leaders across the nation will need to commit to learning, upskilling and understanding the implications of AI and automation in detail. Whether that involves communicating and collaborating with other departments, doing short courses, attending events or holding workshops, HR will need to evolve ahead of time in order to be able to support both businesses and employees as the workplace changes.
According to ‘Future of Skills & Lifelong Learning’, a report by the Government Office for Science, rethinking how we view education and committing to lifelong learning and upskilling will be critical to thriving at work and making the most out of the opportunities offered by AI and automation. While this applies to all of us, it is up to HR to be the architect of lifelong learning and pave the path for the rest of the business to follow.
As the future many of us have long dreaded fears, we must all cast the worries aside and take stock of the skills we have and the skills we’ll need to be able to weather the AI and automation storm. However, HR professionals, in particular will need to commit to acquiring new skills and knowledge in order to fully understand the changing landscape of work.
Blog by Izabela Grochowska who is a content writer and Digital Marketing Assistant at Education Marketplace at Coursesonline.co.uk
Office for National Statistics (ONS) report
CIPD report: People and machines: from hype to reality
World Economic Forum (WEF) report: The future of jobs 2018