There is no doubt that rapid technological advances are changing the nature of work – not just in terms of the jobs that we do, but the way we do them, who we work with, the systems that manage us, and how we plan for the future. Opinions on the future of work and the impact of emerging technologies like artificial intelligence are many and varied, and have generated much debate around whether they will proliferate in work at the expense of humans.

But what is the real story? Will the future of work be dominated by robots? Can people and robots coexist and collaborate? The CIPD and Loughborough University’s new report gathers the evidence and insights, and explores the ethical implications of how we’re currently adopting new technology, to create a basis for delving deeper into how we can ensure that people remain at the heart of work.

Are robots taking over our jobs?

While some have predicted large scale job losses, others have challenged this view by suggesting that when we look at jobs as a series of tasks, it is the tasks that are being automated and the number of actual job losses is minimal. But the majority of commentary has so far fixated on job concerns and the negative impact of technology on people and workplaces. What is crucially missing from these debates is how technology is extending human capabilities and actually augmenting work.

For example, research conducted in the healthcare and transport sectors shows this precise situation. Adoption of technology supported and enhanced human contribution, and allowed people to have some degree of role expansion, rather than removing them from the process completely. The implementation of an automated dispensing system (ADS) in a single UK hospital, for instance, showed a broadly positive impact on in-house pharmacists — reducing the amount of time they had to stay in the dispensary and allowing them to become more active on patient wards. However, on the negative side, when the system malfunctioned, the pharmacists’ inability to fix it became a source of stress. What this highlights is the importance of keeping in mind that some forms of technology are still in their relative infancy and their abilities may look very different over the next few years.

An ethical consideration

Another topic that deserves our attention is the ethics of technology implementation and usage which is becoming a concern to many, particularly as research in this area is embryonic. We’ve found that both scientists and practitioners can see the need for a robust, ethical strategy that will ensure safe use of advanced technologies, with calls for those who develop them to be responsible for the impact they have on people. Indeed, the EU has recently proposed legislation to allow it to ‘fully exploit the economic potential of robotics and artificial intelligence’ while simultaneously guaranteeing a ‘standard of safety and security’. When the UK makes its exit the EU, it’s crucial that we follow the EU’s lead and legislate to maximise the value that AI can bring to our society whilst also protecting ourselves. Any legal and policy approaches should focus on the human values we are trying to protect, rather than on the range of possibilities technological development represents.

A further area of focus is the organisational decision-making process behind technological implementation. How is the choice between human capital and technology being made? What people factors are considered in the introduction of technology in the workplace? These questions warrant further examination.

Our review found that workers’ attitudes and behaviours were a key factor in the extent and manner in which emerging technologies were used. For example, how much workers trust a new system influences how effectively it is used. It is therefore important that employers involve their people in making technological changes and ensure that they are fully aware of the implications, both positive and negative.

What’s HR’s role?

HR professionals have a critical role in ensuring that technology implementation delivers positive outcomes for their people. To do this, they need to have the knowledge and insights to enable their organisations make informed decisions. The challenge will be to recognise the changing expectations of businesses and employees, and ensure that the utilisation of technologies is for the benefit of both.

There is also a wider issue around skills. As the presence of new technologies within organisations increases, there will be a corresponding need for individuals who can engage with them. Currently, this need for skilled individuals is outstripping supply. HR and L&D professionals therefore have an important role in identifying and addressing the skills gaps within their organisations and ensuring they have access to an ‘in-house’ talent pool that can work with emerging technologies.

Read the CIPD and Loughborough University’s report ‘Impact of artificial intelligence, robotics and automation technologies on work’

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At the CIPD, we champion better work and working lives. We help organisations to thrive by focusing on their people, supporting economies and society for the future. We lead debate as the voice for everyone wanting a better world of work.