HR must get up to speed with technology

A Purple Cubed debate panel discussed HR's role in a future workplace characterised by automation and AI

HR must quickly get to grips with what rapid developments in technology mean for the world of work, a panel of HR practitioners and experts agreed at a recent Purple Cubed breakfast event.

The event explored what it means to be a HR revolutionary, with leading technological change emerging as a key area.

Siân Harrington, former publisher and editor of HR magazine and editorial director of membership community and content hub The People Space, said that while the UK HR profession likes to think of itself as ahead of curve in many respects, when it comes to technology it could learn from overseas. “I think we’re behind the curve on technology in the UK. In India they’re setting up Whatsapp networking groups [for instance],” she said, citing North America as similarly ahead of the UK.

Harrington stressed that HR needs to get to grips with what the future workplace will look like now so it doesn't get left behind later. HR, she said, will also look very different. “I think we’ve got a big revolution ahead of us and if you’re not already understanding that the vast majority of your processes will be done by AI then you’re stuck," she said. “Often people think 'not in my industry', but it will [happen]. We are much closer to this than most people realise.”

She added that HR’s role in future would be as much about managing machines as people, crucially to intervene where AI might be “too efficient” or not as a sophisticated as human judgement, such as where potentially discriminating against job candidates for example.

The panel agreed that the automation of more process-driven jobs is an opportunity to free staff up for more uniquely ‘human’ tasks. “What will be vital is where these machines cannot do more human things,” said Harrington. “That’s related to empathy-type characteristics, [and] critical thinking.”

“In hospitality you’ll still need people to look after people,” agreed Sean Wheeler, director of people development at Principal Hotels. “I’m hoping there’s still a need to look after people and engage them.”

He pointed out that a key role for HR in future will be to equip the generations coming into the workforce with these vital people-centred customer service skills, where they might be less adept than previous generations. “The next generation, some of them don’t have many social skills so we need to teach them how to look after people. Because of technology there is a bigger need to teach them… they don’t learn [social skills] because they’re talking to each other on Facebook.”

The panel also explored HR’s role in protecting employees from digital overload and being ‘always on’, even while at home. Amy Sawbridge, brand director and head of employee experience at Virgin Group, said that her company has rolled out a digital detox every Wednesday where the email server is turned off for a period.

She said, however, that this was more to “create the debate” around whether always being connected to technology is a good thing, rather than prescribe working times. “It was good to show the principle of getting away from email and going to talk to someone,” she said.

She added: “We have to treat people like adults when it comes to when and where they like to work. The same way I wouldn’t presume to tell our people they shouldn’t leave early to pick their kids up, I wouldn’t tell them they shouldn’t be logging on at 9pm.”

Wheeler spoke of the importance of using technology to connect with employees, particularly those who aren’t desk-based. “We use Whatsapp – that’s a very quick way of getting a message out there without having to go through a hierarchy,” he said.

Sawbridge added the importance of treating candidates well. “You can’t speak to potential candidates differently to potential customers," she said. "With social media everyone has a megaphone, so you can’t carve out different experiences according to who we think that person is to us.”