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The Next HR: Faster, Smarter, More Human?

By Rohit Talwar, Steve Wells and Alexandra Whittington

Though it has the word “human” in the title, don’t expect HR to remain immune to the impacts of automation, robotics and artificial intelligence (AI). Technology is reshaping every aspect of society, and its potential HR implications are vast and still revealing themselves. Hiring, training and record-keeping are just some of the ways technologies are set to transform the HR function.

The HR experience of the future is not predictable, but there are some solid indications of the direction things are heading. For HR, there are four key domains of impact:

  • The role of emerging technologies in transforming the business and helping the workforce adapt
  • The new ways of organizing people, working and learning that are enabled by technology
  • Addressing the broader societal impacts such as technological unemployment
  • The ways in which these technologies could transform the purpose, work and impact of the HR function itself.

Below, we draw on themes discussed in the book The Future of Business to explore ten key areas of potential impact of technological advances that HR directors and leaders need to have on their radars.

1. Rethinking Workspace – The Rise of Smart Cities and Buildings

As much of our environment becomes “smart,” this enables entirely different approaches to workforce and work space management. The smart city provides a digital infrastructure so traffic, policing, public transportation and crowd movement can be monitored and managed by a central authority in the interest of maximum efficiency and safety. In terms of preventing congestion around car accidents, for example, a stretch of road prone to fender-benders during rush hour could be patrolled, or have cars rerouted from the area. Such decisions are made based on an analysis of big data drawn from a range of sensors constantly monitoring their environment.

The same concept would be applied to smart buildings and their workforce occupants; elevator lines could be coordinated, or shift work scheduled, and adjusted instantaneously, based on patterns of activity and behavior reflected in the data. For HR, this could mean that the documentation of workplace incidents could become the domain of the surveillance systems embedded in smart buildings. Would this bring an end to the investigation of workplace disputes? If firms become part of the interconnected smart city, would they be required to feed in employee data? If so, then privacy, behavior modification, data profiling and surveillance are potential hot button issues that HR must handle.

2. Continuous Organization Redesign – Adapting to AI

We are witnessing the rise of the AI lawyer, accountant, doctor and stockbroker. As AI and other disruptive technologies become embedded across business functions and management activities, organizations must be prepared to respond to the speed of change and the exponential improvements that become possible in customer service, product development and service delivery.

It’s too soon to predict how AI managers will conduct business, but they may well increase the pace and efficiency with which the organization functions. In response, organizations are moving into a state of near continuous redesign. Hence HR needs to think about how to ensure a rapid and effective response to rapidly-changing personnel and training requirements. An AI in the C-suite isn’t far off, but how it might play out is hugely uncertain.

3. Blended and Swarm Workforces – Gig Workers of the World, Unite

It is now common for firms to use a blend of internal and contract talents and adopt the swarm model to pull together teams of employees, partner companies and “gig worker” contractors to deliver projects – much like a film crew assembles and disbands when the movie is completed. Gig work is great for flexible hours and amassing a portfolio of non-routine experiences.

However, lately freelancers have expressed a need to convene and interact. A global gig worker collective called Enspiral, for instance, involves a combination of face-to-face meeting rooms, open-source technology and digital organizing as the foundation of a form of social safety net for freelance workers. Members can share ideas, meals, contacts and projects. As the 9–5 job becomes extinct, the rise of freelancing is revealing some increasingly unmet needs – social, emotional, intellectual, to name a few – that were once fulfilled in the workplace. HR professionals could play a valuable role in helping to organize gig economy workers around the common goals and interests they share.

4. Team Focus, Rewards and Tools – HR by Algorithm

In the digital age, there is growing discussion about how to design teams and how to manage a workforce that might include humans, robots and smart software – each playing a key role. While we know the new technologies on the horizon can save time, money and resources, we don’t yet know their limitations and there are still areas where humans are more effective.

Google’s two-year Project Aristotle study revealed that despite the tremendous caliber of data analysts and data engineers, relying on data analysis alone was inadequate to provide a formula for team building success. No algorithm could form better work teams – it requires a human touch to select the best, most effective groups. As we become more technology-dependent and the geeks inherit the Earth, HR must ensure these new masters of the universe have the emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills to communicate with each other and the businesses they serve.

5. Talent Wars/The Alliance – Tours of Duty/Outsourcing HR

New patterns of engagement are required to motivate and retain talent. The idea of “tours of duty” in different projects and areas of the business will become more common. The ability to outsource almost any job, including HR, will also transform workplaces.

For example, two leading Chinese startups, UR Work and Woo Space, don’t just offer work space for short-term and sporadic use; they also provide a network for smaller companies to exchange services such as HR for small companies and startups. As space-sharing morphs into new partnerships and opportunities, and technologies make it simpler to handle a fluctuating workforce, HR may require more flexibility.

6. Short Interval Scheduling – Managing Attention Deficit

Firms are finding that the new generations coming into the workforce want freedom and responsibility, but may lack the skills to navigate and prioritize open-ended work tasks. Hence there’s a growing interest in the use of short interval scheduling to break larger tasks into more manageable daily or even hourly deliverables. This also allows for more regular feedback to a generation that has grown used to constant affirmation through Facebook likes and hearts.

The scheduling process is being automated. Tools such as Work Fusion break high volume, complex data work into discrete tasks and algorithmically assign them to appropriate machine and human resources. The platforms look to improve human productivity by leveraging a combination of internal, outsourced, and crowdsourced workers. Customers control which types of workers contribute to crowdsourced work. Over time, humans are engaged only when algorithms face new obstacles or challenges for any particular task.

7. Continuous Feedback and Performance Review

The notion of the annual appraisal doesn’t wash with a workforce that thrives on the 24/7 adrenaline rush of being liked, shared and retweeted. Employees want frequent and instant feedback. At the same time, performance monitoring has extended into the physical and cognitive realms. Everything can and will be tracked, analyzed and commented on. Wearable devices such as health and fitness trackers are increasing in power and popularity. These wristbands and tags can be worn as fashion accessories, and monitor multiple aspects of health and fitness. It seems inevitable that some employees will be required to wear these devices as a condition of employment, while others may expect employers to provide them.

Additionally, brain scanning technologies are already in place to monitor rising and falling emotion levels, concentration and productivity. If used properly and ethically, these technologies could present HR with new opportunities to truly monitor workforce health and wellbeing. Data collected from wearables and brain monitors could be analyzed using AI to enable continual performance review and feedback. A range of predictions and research surveys highlight the growing focus on physical and mental performance monitoring:

  • Tractica predicts more than 75 million wearables will permeate the workplace by 2020.
  • Gartner estimates that by 2018, two million employees will be required to wear health and fitness tracking devices as a condition of employment.
  • A PWC survey found 49 percent believe wearable tech will increase workplace efficiency, while 37 percent expect their company to adopt the latest technology even if it doesn’t directly influence their work.
  • 67 percent of consumers said that employers should pay for their device.
  • Only 25 percent of respondents said they would not trust any company with personal information associated with wearable technology.
8. Workplace Practices and Business Dress – Small Footprint Workplaces

As societal expectations and concerns shift, the workplace must adapt. As the modern workforce, millennials and younger (Gen Z) enter a societal age concerned with efficient use of talent, responsible practice, clean energy, conservation, ecological responsibility and a greater focus on mindful business, the structure and ethos of organizations will inevitably change.

These concerns also drive questions about the external and internal design of buildings and the avoidance of ostentatious displays of corporate wealth and power. As workforces shrink through technological advances, firms must be even more mindful of their total physical, energetic and environmental footprint. HR has a critical role here in acting as the guardian of corporate conscience and as a conduit between leaders and employees. Technology can play a critical role in supporting the dialogue.

9. Flexible Benefits – Salary, Health, Discounts, Location, Hours, Opportunity

As new discoveries into brain science and human behavior are emerging – and companies are using analytics to achieve improved results – HR will begin to arm itself with the tools and insights of a scientist to achieve better performances from their workforces. As neuroscience can deliver high-level insights into the nuances of human behaviour and performance, our notions and understanding of performance in the workplace will alter. Instead of managing a workforce with a one-size-fits-all approach, HR will treat each employee as a “workforce of one” with unique needs and preferences, and will customize employee incentives accordingly.

Technology is also enabling a buffet-style approach to selecting the benefits package that works for each employee. While one may prefer purely financial rewards to help save for a new home, another may opt for access to significant discounts on critical purchases such as holidays and cars. For some, training and development might be prioritized while others opt for health insurance and gym membership. For example, millennials and Gen Z are increasingly citing work-life balance, security and stability as their priorities from employment, and employers must recognize the new expectations of them; providing value-laden service such as balance and security must be policy standard. HR strategy needs to consider well-being and work-life balance as an essential component of a broader engagement strategy.

10. Total Well-being and The Enhanced Employee – Insuring the Cyborg Worker

Changing expectations of young workers and increased neuroscientific knowledge are altering our perceptions of well-being in the workplace. We are witnessing the increasing use of performance-enhancing nootropic drugs in the workforce. Health and safety policies and company health insurance could be radically disrupted by the augmentation of human workers, the creation of cyborg workers or the development of synthetic beings to carry out work deemed unpleasant or dangerous.

HR will need to continually review health and safety policies to meet the ever-changing physical nature of their employees. The blurring lines between human being, enhanced being and fully augmented being will require HR to have a cutting-edge view of the nature of a person and an adaptive take on health policy.

The Most Critical Role of HR

As the world’s obsession with digital transformation and AI increases, the focus inevitably shifts to the C-suite and the IT function as together they must deliver the necessary technological infrastructure and business transformation. However, these change programmes are doomed to undershoot their targets or fail completely if we don’t take a step back and focus on the people dimension. HR has a critical role to play here in ensuring that change is managed properly and that our people genuinely are at the heart of the story. While technology can do more and more of our work, it will be a critical part of HR’s role to ensure we are creating a very human future.


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