The COVID-19 situation means many of us are more reliant on technology in our working and personal lives than ever before. For many, our computers, tablets and smartphones represent our only link to the outside world, most notably our families, communities and colleagues. 

The changing landscape of work 

In these exceptional circumstances, technology is acting as a positive connecting force. This crisis is also accelerating changes to the ways in which many of us work. In the words of INSEAD professor Gianpiero Petriglieri, this provides an additional opportunity for us to think about how ‘we integrate technology more mindfully into our lives’. That is something for HR leaders to consider carefully, as we are forced into very different ways of working that could have a profound impact on our well-being.  

Even before this crisis hit, automation, artificial intelligence (AI) and other advanced technologies were transforming the way we work. CIPD analysis suggests that, in some sectors, emerging technologies will complement and extend human capabilities more than they will make current roles redundant. Indeed, the crisis is showing us how essential a lot of in-person work still is (delivery drivers hailed as essential workers, for example), but we cannot afford to be complacent.

Using advanced technologies responsibly 

One version of the future of work is being thrust upon us right now. But rather than being passive and sitting back, people professionals should take a lead role in shaping the new world of work. That should be one where technology such as AI and automation delivers on its more positive promises, such as increasing autonomy, freeing us up from mundane tasks, bringing us closer together and delivering productivity gains, rather than one where swathes of people are left out of work, disempowered, fearful or deskilled. 

There exist no shortage of examples that show the importance of interrogating the people impact of tech. Take the recent news about Barclays’ introduction of an employee surveillance tool, apparently to increase well-being and efficiency. When an uneasy employee told the press, the backlash was so negative the bank was forced to backtrack and scrap the tool within 24 hours of the story being picked up by the media. 

We don’t know whether Barclays’ HR team were consulted to make sure the tool landed effectively, but research suggests HR teams have little involvement in tech investment decisions, or are involved too late. The CIPD’s 2019 report People and machines: from hype to reality found that  when it comes to investment decisions surrounding the implementation of AI and automation, HR is the least likely function to be involved, especially when the technology is used for cognitive tasks.  

Can this be right, given that these changes may have wide-ranging implications for people and skills? Could the involvement of people professionals at an early stage give technology projects a higher chance of success? According to PwC’s latest HR Technology Survey, only 27% of HR execs rated HR tech as very effective for changing behaviours at work, while 82% reported struggling with adoption challenges.

Technologists and HR leaders working together 

Investment in technology is too important to leave to technologists alone - HR leaders have a responsibility to push themselves into the conversation at an early stage, highlighting the importance of meaningful consultation with employees and the likely implications for job design, skills development and employment relations. To quote organisational psychologist John Amaechi, who gave the closing keynote at the 2020 CIPD Scotland Conference, people professionals need to act as ‘an objective and ethical watcher of technological integration’ and ‘custodians of people and culture’ in the face of digital transformation.  

Rob McCargow, PwC director of AI, agrees. ‘It’s vital for HR leaders to be part of this – it’s no longer a “nice to have”,’ he says. ‘It’s a fundamental job requirement for people professionals. They need to upskill themselves to ask the right questions and be in the room when these decisions around technology are being made.’ 

This is why the CIPD is partnering with the Institute for the Future of Work to produce guidance for people professionals that ensures job quality and the principles of good work are embedded at the centre of any introduction and implementation of workplace technology. 

As our current predicament demonstrates, technology can bring us together in extraordinary ways. Our work aims to provide a framework that helps people professionals to maximise the good aspects of digital transformation and mitigate the risks. This crisis shows us we need work to be more human, not less so. 

Questions for people professionals  

Done well, the implementation of workplace technology has the potential to bring so much good, from connecting people remotely to streamlining mundane tasks. But done badly, it brings a multitude of risks, and people professionals need to be vigilant. Consider: 

  • Bias. AI isn’t inherently biased but it will take on the biases of those who programme it. Be alert to this and get involved with designing any predictive tools to avoid a situation like the one Amazon faced recently, scrapping an AI recruiting tool for being biased against women. 
  • The impact on trust of using surveillance-type tools, or tools that could be perceived in this way. How does this work with regulation and rules around an employee’s right to privacy at work? 
  • Do tools that are designed to increase efficiency or productivity do so at the expense of autonomy? Do people feel the pressure to be ‘always on’? This has a negative impact on job quality. 
  • What is the impact of job losses on communities? It can disproportionality impact certain groups. For example, the economist Vicky Pryce calls automation a ‘gendered threat, which will hit women hardest’ – and women are also likely to be hit harder by the economic impact of the coronavirus.
  • How are you reskilling and redeploying people? When presented with the statement ‘We help employees whose jobs have been made redundant by technology transition to other organisations/sectors’, only half (49%) HR professionals and a third of other C-suite leaders agreed, according to PwC research. That’s more than half of organisations that aren’t giving it much thought. How does that fit with being ‘purpose-led’?  

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