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Technology’s impact on work and HR may be overstated

Research has found that flexible working and contracts are potentially bigger issues for HR

Fears of job losses and the diminished role of HR professionals in the future may be over-exaggerated, according to a new report The Impact of Technology and the Future World of Work on the Role of the HR Professional.

The research, undertaken by the Civil Service, Cranfield School of Management, and the Institute for Employment Studies (IES) and seen exclusively by HR magazine, looked at how technology and the changing world of work will affect HR professionals. Researchers analysed media coverage of the future of work, and drew on the experience of academics, senior HR professionals and futurologists through in-depth interviews, as well as carrying out interviews with the Civil Service’s HR team.

The report found that technology may not change work as radically as many assume, with flexibility and contracts potentially having a more profound impact.

Paula Leach, chief people officer at the Home Office, told HR magazine that a desire to cut through fear-mongering was a driving force behind the study. “There’s all sorts of reporting about robots stealing jobs, and I wonder to what extent that has really happened. In manufacturing we have seen some functions that have been robotised but overall there has not been decreased employment; it’s more about looking at how the type of work that people are doing has changed,” she said.

She added: “There’s a need for the HR function to understand the landscape… not only in terms of the people we might want to develop but also more strategically: what is the discussion about people in organisations that HR should be having?”

Much debate surrounding the future of work focuses on issues happening now, added Emma Parry, professor of human resource management and head of the Changing World of Work Group at Cranfield School of Management. She agreed that HR should think more strategically.

“The future of work has almost become a cliché. The issues we face around automation, and the fact that we need to reskill and upskill, have always faced us. In terms of HR, the need to move from the transactional has not really changed either,” she said.

“There is a tendency in HR to focus on the next piece of technology. But really think about your business’ aims and why you want to introduce it – will it help to bring you closer towards business aims and how will it do that?”

Principal associate at the IES Dilys Robinson noted that in discussions with the Civil Service there were far more tensions surrounding flexible working than technology.

“There has obviously been a huge increase in the number of people working remotely or from home, and an emphasis on how this can improve the lives of particular groups,” she said. “However, there are certain roles, especially in the Civil Service, that cannot be done remotely. So when it comes to flexibility we could see that there are ‘haves and have-nots’.”

Leach confirmed that traditional HR issues such as contracts will become more significant.

“Some of the traditional things we would have relied on like employment law and contracts will become increasingly important as we navigate this new landscape,” she said. “We need to make sure we are keeping employees happy and safe, and that we are also keeping employers realistic about their expectations surrounding flexible work.”

Transactional HR becoming increasingly automated will allow HR professionals to take a more holistic approach to the world of work, added Leach.

“I think we need to start thinking about this less in terms of jobs and more in terms of work. This is also about the social aspect. In a world where there is greater ambiguity how do we attend to the social requirements of human beings?” she asked.

Leach added: “In a world where we will get increased data, increased uncertainty and increased volume, a pragmatic mindset that allows [HR] to cut through the crux of an issue, and an understanding of how to move forward, will be key.”