Technology is changing the nature of work as we know it. Our People Profession 2030 report identified digital and technological transformation as one of five key trends that will influence the future world of work. As part of our Latest insights series, this article explores how people professionals can use their expertise to take a prominent role in technological-driven change to benefit organisations and their employees.

It’s not just routine physical tasks that are increasingly being automated, but also routine mental work. Automation is happening at different rates in different jobs and industries around the world. While drone delivery is being trialled in the UK, some Chinese companies have been using them to deliver items to customers in hard to reach rural areas since before 2017. Driverless vehicles are being used in controlled areas such as airports and metro lines. Price comparison sites promoted by furry animals and other eccentric characters have simplified the mental task of choosing insurance, replacing the role of many insurance brokers. HR payroll software automates routine payroll activities and can even allow employees to request wages outside the normal payroll cycle through an app.

Within the next few decades it is possible all routine physical and mental tasks could eventually be done more cheaply by machines. How? Technology improves productivity by reducing the time and cost of production, which in turn fuels demand and creates jobs. But further productivity improvements can eliminate jobs.

In his book Human Compatible, AI expert Professor Stuart Russell uses house painting as an example to explain this (see Figure 1). The hypothetical graph shows house painting employment as technology improves. Paintbrush width represents the level of automation. If brushes are the width of one hair, no house painters are employed. At one millimetre wide, a few painters might be employed to paint the homes of the wealthy. When brushes are 10 centimetres wide, most homeowners can afford to have their houses painted, creating thousands of house painter jobs. Demand for house painting peaks when large areas can be painted with rollers and spray guns, so the number of house painter jobs start to fall. Once one person can manage a team of house- painting robots, there will be fewer house painting jobs for people. Imagine this curve being applied to all routine jobs.

Figure 1: Technology creates jobs but further improvements in productivity eliminate jobs

For the next few years at least, the evidence suggests that technology will continue to create more jobs than it destroys. By 2025, the World Economic Forum (WEF) estimates machines will create 97 million jobs for humans and replace 85 million. But the rate that new jobs replace redundant jobs is expected to slow down in 2025. The WEF’s Future of Jobs Report 2020 doesn’t predict the extent to which the new jobs will provide enough income or be accessible to displaced employees. McKinsey predicts between 400 million to 800 million people could be displaced by automation and need to find new jobs by 2030. Although estimates vary widely, it is clear that millions of employees will need to learn new skills.

The CIPD People and machines survey highlighted that the people profession is more likely to be involved in the decision to invest in AI and automation or its implementation when roles are created or eliminated (Figure 2). But in general, HR is less likely to be involved in technology investment decisions or implementation than other departments (Figure 3).

Figure 2: HR involvement in decisions around AI and automation investment and implementation


Figure 3: Departments involved in decision to invest and implementation of AI and automation


People professionals have a responsibility to address the many nuances associated with digital transformation and its impact on people. How can the profession be more involved in shaping this change?

About the authors

Ruth Woodfield

Ruth Woodfield is Professor of Equalities and Organisation in the School of Management at the University of St Andrews. With Mairi Stewart, Director of HR, she led on the development of the University’s People Strategy and Action Plan that was shortlisted for a Times Higher Education award for Outstanding Contribution to Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion (2021).

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