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Does HR dream of electric sheep?

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Does HR dream of electric sheep?

Change is a massive pre-occupation for all, its pace and its reach makes the future almost inconceivable, and then it arrives before we know it, then we take it for granted – smartphones possess millions of times more processing power than the entire NASA computing system that put man on the moon. As the dawn of artificial intelligence and driverless cars rises, can we ever be really prepared for “the next big thing”?

The global population has grown to seven billion people, with projections suggesting it will rise to 11 billion by 2100. These changes are driving significant trends which will transform both the societies we live in and the world of work. HR has a crucial role to play in helping businesses to survive and thrive in this fast-changing landscape and HR teams must understand and develop proactive responses to these trends, using data and insights to formulate their strategies. This article will set out four key challenges that organisations are facing and how HR must respond. The first key trend impacting the workplace is a burning issue for governments and businesses alike, and that is the simple fact that people are living and working for longer. We have all, of course, discussed the impacts of this at length and surmised on the solutions, but it is worth looking at the scale. According to the ONS, the UK population aged 65 and over is projected to increase by 42 percent in the period to 2030. At the same time, more people are remaining healthier and active into their later life. Similarly, people are remaining in work for longer and consequently, we are seeing increasingly the rise of the three generation workforce. Organisations, and individual teams within businesses, are becoming more ‘age-diverse’, so we must consider how to lead, manage and engage people working in the same teams who could be between 17 and 70 years of age. Employers must also establish a strategy to ensure employees are ‘digitally savvy’. While millennials are likely to have ingrained digital skills that have been developed from an early age, there are many people who will be less familiar with these technologies and how to exploit them effectively and organisations will need to address this in order to enable success.

Broader societal trends are also creating greater diversity in the workforce. In 2015, an estimated 270,000 citizens from other EU countries immigrated to the UK, and 85,000 emigrated abroad, making net migration roughly the highest recorded level, according to Full Fact. Seventy eight percent of women in the UK are in employment, with 28 percent outside of the labour force according to the PwC Women In Work Index 2016. Combined, globalisation and greater gender balance are creating a more diverse workforce than ever before. We are all finally seeing and experiencing how diversity can create great strength in organisations, as it provides the mixture of perspectives and experiences that allow businesses to continue to innovate and perform at higher levels. As businesses, customers and audiences similarly grow in diversity, it’s an obvious imperative that organisations create strategies to foster a supportive and inclusive working environments in which people can be themselves and within which innovation and creativity can thrive. 

People’s expectations about their work life are also changing, with greater demands – flexible working, we of course have taken on board and is de rigueur in most organisations, but lifestyle too is becoming more prevalent to the workplace as the once clear lines between work and leisure are erased. What is important is, merely paying lip service to what constitutes a good work/life balance and not living up to the expectation is instantly exposed, as surveys and polls demonstrate time and again that it is the most important factor for many workers when choosing a role, even more important than salary. Social changes are also impacting this desire for flexible working; an increasing number of men are primary carers for children for example and increasing numbers of employees must now look after elderly parents. Businesses should therefore look to use flexible working strategies and create a flexible culture allow them to attract and retain the best talent. There are now low cost technologies which facilitate effective remote working, meaning that employees do not need to be constantly present in the central office. The main challenges for organisations will be to design effective plans to balance the flexible working needs of each employee, ensure that remote working is productive and maintain cohesion within teams. 

Workplace technology is advancing at an astonishing rate, with the constant emergence new applications for automation and artificial intelligence. As well as helping workers to complete their jobs more easily, we are seeing technologies take on parts of jobs that were traditionally completed by humans. For example, artificial intelligence is being applied in the legal profession to conduct searches traditionally undertaken by junior lawyers, resulting in substantial time-savings. The important principle behind these advances is that they allow human workers to focus on the high value part of what they do, automating routine and administrative tasks. However, there is also a risk that some positions may become redundant or fundamentally change. According to a recent study, 30 percent of UK workers believe their job is likely to be replaced by a robot in the next 20 years. To remain competitive, businesses will need to consider which parts of their work can be automated and digitised, and evaluate the impact that this will have on existing job roles. Some jobs may simply no longer exist in the future or require very different skills. That’s not to say that technologies will only reduce human employment opportunities, as it’s likely that entirely new jobs will be created. Organisations will need to fundamentally consider how they operate in this new technological landscape, and those that respond robustly to change will be the ones to succeed. 

Given the current pace of change, it’s vital that businesses both understand and respond to these trends – and HR must take the lead. HR teams must move away from focussing on transactional activity and be proactive in guiding the business through this changing landscape. This means that HR must be insights-driven, staying constantly informed about the developments impacting the world of work, and in particular how this will affect their industry and business. Commercial acumen and understanding is at least as important as technical HR skills in this context, as HR teams need to ensure they have the insight and business understanding to inform and drive the business agenda. Data will also play a vital role here. Data is one of the most powerful tools of the digital age, and it’s vital that HR teams are able to gather and gain insights from data about their own workforce and the broader industry. Using analytics, HR teams can better identify and understand trends in the business to enable better decision making. As a further step, predictive analytics can be utilised to model what the workforce will need to look like in the future and how the existing workforce is likely to change. Given the importance of data, HR teams will also need to incorporate new skills, such as data scientists to enable them to use data effectively to gain insights into their organisation. 

The way that HR works within the business will also be vital to ensure that these insights are acted on effectively, with the HR director at the fulcrum, having input into the overarching business strategy and thinking in terms of business outcomes. The HR Function must then work alongside the business to implement strategies to address the changing internal and external context. In this time of great change, it’s vital that the HR function takes a proactive stance, guiding and leading the business through fundamental changes to the employment landscape. The future success of organisations in every industry will be dependent on how effectively they adapt and respond to alterations in employment and the workforce. By understanding and responding to these changes, the HR function can secure its place as a central crux within the business.

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