The “future” of work is already here – and HR leaders face three urgent questions

Lizzie Buxton

Written By Rory Jackson, Head of Marketing and Customer Acquisition, AdviserPlus

2nd October 2019

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Findings revealed at two recent HR events – Gartner ReimagineHR and the London HR Summit – showed talk of the future leaves HR unprepared for changes happening now.

HR leaders spend a lot of time worrying about “the future of work” – the way that digital technology will change the workplace, and the nature of employment. And we’re not ready – in fact, just 9% of Chief Human Resources Officers say their organisation is prepared[i].

That’s a big problem, because we’re not talking about a distant future. The truth is, those changes are happening now.

In the last couple of weeks, I attended two major HR events: Gartner ReimagineHR, and the London HR Summit. Two things became clear: the rise of digital has seen HR fall behind other departments – but also that the rapid change we’re seeing now is an opportunity to gain recognition as a true driver of business value.

“There are still some organisations where there is a way to go before HR is seen to be a business partner and not just the department that administers payroll and contracts.”

Valerie Hughes d’Aeth, BBC
HR Magazine “Most Influential” Hall of Fame

The events also revealed three clear questions that HR leaders need to address as a matter of urgency – which could make the difference between watching from the sidelines, and taking a central role at the heart of the business.

Question 1: What is happening to line managers?

Technology is changing the nature of the role beyond all recognition. In the next five years, an estimated 69% of a manager’s current workload will be automated[ii].

That presents employers with an opportunity to boost both efficiency and employee experience. At AdviserPlus, we’re seeing how progressive organisations are using technology to make everyday ER more manager-based, automating common tasks and enabling digital self-service, to reduce HR and manager workload and improve engagement and consistency. Using data insights captured from digitisation, HR teams are able to work with managers to continually improve processes and proactively identify ways in which they can work together to tackle challenges like absenteeism.

This rapid automation of the management workload also means that, in the not too distant future, the world will likely need fewer, more specialised managers. That means there’s a chance now to challenge the culture of promotion by default – that management is an expected outcome of experience – and instead only select those who are genuinely suited to a management role.

To quote Brian Kropp, Group Vice President of Gartner’s HR practice: “HR needs to stop asking itself ‘how do we develop our managers for the future of work?’ and start asking ‘how is technology changing what it means to be a manager?’”

Question 2: Now AI is taking away on-the-job training, how will people learn?

HR leaders are understandably concerned with ensuring employees have the right digital skills. After all, 63% of job posts have seen a quarter of their required skills change since 2014[iii].

But there’s a more pressing issue: the opportunity to learn these skills is disappearing.

That’s because the basic, repetitive tasks that are increasingly handled by AI and automation are the same tasks that were once assigned to inexperienced employees, to help them learn on the job.

70% of all work learning happens through on-the-job training – and right now 67% of suitable tasks are tasks being replaced by AI[iv]. That means 47% of all workplace training opportunities are about to disappear.

For example, customer service centres would traditionally assign new recruits to handle the most common, transactional interactions, letting them get a firm grasp of the basics, and refer complex enquiries to experienced colleagues. Now customers can handle those basic interactions using chatbots and digital self-service, where will that experience come from? How can we ensure recruits are ready to do complex work from day one?

Question 3: How do we use people data to prove the value of HR?

This is perhaps the question that’s most responsible for holding HR back. Other business functions have seized the opportunities of digital transformation – using data insights to make strategic decisions, and prove their effectiveness – and have been rewarded by a seat at the top table.

In most organisations, people are the biggest cost and the biggest value creator. HR is the custodian of the employees, so why does HR still struggle to not only prove its own value, but take strategic leadership across the organisation?

“Too many HR organizations still fail to make a hard and convincing connection between talent decisions and value.”

The CEO’s Guide to Competing Through HR
McKinsey Quarterly, July 2017

Look at marketing. Not so long ago, it was jokingly called the “colouring-in department” – often seen as a luxury, a function that spent the organisation’s money for a return that was hard to define. At most, success was measured in number of leads, leading to qualification disputes with sales.

Then, digital transformation happened. Starting with email marketing but quickly moving into the how the internet and social media could not only help them reach and service customers, but also create new revenue streams. Marketers seized the opportunity to demonstrate value – and beyond that, to collect and analyse reams of data to interpret and predict customer behaviour. Now, the Chief Marketing Officer is a common sight on company boards, leading the strategy of Marketing, Sales and Product.

Now people data gives HR the opportunity to achieve similar success. HR teams may well have been held back previously by ethical concerns around collecting data on employees, but Gartner encouraged us to think a little differently, instead asking the question “how do we ethically use the data we collect”. HR, they argue, is ideally placed to lead on data, transparency and AI ethics within the organisation.

Employees are generally happy to share their data, as long as employers are transparent and rigorous about how it’s used. Only by knowing more about our employees can HR functions really start to drive and quantify improvements in business performance through improvements in people performance.

This opportunity is happening now – whether we’re ready or not

“HR leaders need to ask themselves: is ‘if it isn’t broken don’t fix it’ a viable strategy… or is it really a fear of change?”

John Kostoulas, Senior Director, Human Capital Management Analyst, Gartner

I left the two events with a strong sense that this is a pivotal moment for HR. Discussions around the “future of work” may have blinded some leaders to the change that is already happening now.

Digital transformation has changed every aspect of our lives – from the way we catch a taxi, to the way we bank, to the way we watch TV. Things are simpler, and more convenient – and data about our habits helps organisations to save us time and deliver more engaging, personalised experiences. Only the experience we get as an employee remains relatively unchanged; I wonder how long people will accept that.

There is still time for HR to respond – and in the process, to begin to take a more strategic business role. But that time is limited.

In his talk at the London HR Summit, AdviserPlus CEO, Nick Bradley, asked the assembled HR leaders to rate themselves on the Bersin model of HR maturityvi. Most had progressed from personnel to operational HR – but few had moved towards integrated talent management, and almost none described their work as high-impact, or business-driven.

If HR is going to make the most of this opportunity, leaders need to find a way to accelerate that change. Answering these three questions could be a good place to start.



[i] 2019 Gartner HR Future Effectiveness Survey

[ii] 2017 CEB Manager Effectiveness Survey

[iii] Gartner TalentNeuron

[iv] 2019, Gartner Inc


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