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Before the COVID-19 pandemic was on anybody’s radar, the HR profession was already looking towards a much-talked about major disruptor for jobs and the employment market – the introduction of artificial intelligence (AI) and automation in the workplace.

There is no doubt the effects of new technologies will be wide-reaching and have the potential to cause significant change to a large number of careers which have previously been seen as secure.

Academics, business experts and trade unions have all put forward their predictions of the implications of the so-called ‘New Economy’ on the existing and future workforce in 2030. They have outlined a variety of adaptations to skills and business models that could be implemented to make the economy and labour market prosper.

COVID-19 has turbocharged some of the expected changes by speeding up the digitalisation of the workplace. Prior to lockdown, it was unthinkable that so many people would be working from home full-time and speaking to colleagues only by ‘phone and meeting via video calls. Seeing how quickly and effectively companies like Interserve have responded to the challenges posed by lockdown – by very quickly managing to get people working remotely – has been encouraging: it sets us in good stead for the inevitable changes that the adoption of AI and robotics will bring. Yet there are both challenges and opportunities that need to be considered.

Digital inclusion
Digital inclusion is a critical topic for businesses. HR professionals need to work with businesses to ensure employees do not get left behind by technological advances, particularly when the pace of change is rapid. This applies not just to operational and service roles who may be obstructed from access to current and future digital technology by cost and provision, but also by offering retraining and career transitioning to employees in roles being changed by AI and automation.

For example, a mid-career accountant who finds the number crunching and analysis element of their job is now done by AI in a quicker and more accurate way, will need to be able to focus on the more human aspects of their role such as  judgement, critical thinking and communication.

To stop people from being left behind, it is essential for companies to provide lifelong learning, fast career transitioning and redeployment opportunities, such as Interserve has provided this year via its launched to match employees at risk of being furloughed or redundancy with job vacancies on other contracts. It will also be necessary to have flexible employment models and contracts to enable colleagues to learn new skills and fill new roles.

At Interserve we pride ourselves on the training and learning and development we provide to our colleagues. We have a comprehensive learning curriculum delivered both via workshops (pre-COVID-19) and virtual classrooms. We keep our learning offering agile, so we adapt to the changing needs of our colleagues. For example, we recently created a “Lockdown Learning” section in our learning management system where we curated assets useful during the current altered workplace. These feature top tips and guides for things like:

  • managing teams remotely
  • how to deliver online meetings effectively
  • getting the best from virtual calls
  • wellbeing and resilience
  • effective home working

We also recently launched a special BookBoon campaign giving colleagues access to short version eBooks and audio books that can be downloaded. More than 13,500 ebooks and audio books on 1,457 topics providing over 15,000 hours of learning have been downloaded since its launch. This illustrates that people are always hungry for development if we can supply it in an easy to consume format.

Flexible working
COVID-19 has shown that many employees do not need to be at an office desk from 9-5, five days a week. Although I believe many people will go back into their offices when it is safe to do so, undoubtedly increased demand for flexible working and remote working is here to stay.

The mental well-being of employees who work in physical isolation from colleagues is already an important issue and will be increasingly so, particularly when coupled with the big and unsettling changes that AI brings for people’s careers. We have launched a range of measures to support colleagues’ wellbeing, including providing free access to all of our people to an App called Thrive, which is the only wellbeing application accredited by the NHS. Senior management teams across our business have implemented a broad spectrum of innovative measures to ensure colleagues are involved in group activities, whether that be social media groups taking part in quizzes and hobby groups outside of work through to asking after colleagues’ health during catch-up calls. The company has also launched a Mental Health and Well Being Policy to provide a strategic approach to ensuring our number one asset – our people – are cared for and in the right frame of mind to do their best.

New leadership styles which drive productivity among a virtual workforce and foster a sense of community and engagement when that workforce rarely comes together will be vital. Central to this approach is two-way communication, genuinely reaching out to every member of staff to encourage them to say how they feel and to be responsive to people’s personal circumstances as all of us have come under added pressure during COVID-19 and the economic uncertainty which the pandemic has also brought.

Pace of change
The world of work has been through huge transformations before, but the pace and complexity of change we are expecting with AI and robotics presents a unique set of issues that a generation of HR professionals will have to successfully navigate. The transformation will touch every aspect of our lives and is simultaneously exciting and daunting.

Two key factors I believe will be integral for HR professionals to master will be the ability to redesign employment models that will work for all of our stakeholders and to create a new “psychological contract” which is fit for purpose for the New Economy which enables all who participate in it to flourish.

John Lambert – Group Human Resources Director – Interserve Group Ltd

    John is Interserve Group Limited's HR Director. A senior HR generalist with an excellent record of delivering business results through HR strategies focused on the customer, commercial and operational priorities. An experienced leader in the management of change, the delivery of projects and leadership of teams.

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