In the age of technology, it’s still all about the people

The generally accepted opinion is that low-skill, low-wage activities on the front line are the ones most susceptible to automation.  However, as developments in artificial intelligence gather serious pace, workplace automation is reaching ever greater levels of sophistication. So really it’s only a matter of time before robots do most of us out of a job.

That’s the theory. As automation increases, CEOs will hire fewer and fewer people. And, presumably, the role of HR will change; if there are fewer people, what’s the point of HR? It’s enough to cause a fundamental rethink of what human resources should be all about. Except – perhaps we’re being a bit quick off the mark.

Our latest CEO Survey contained a startling statistic, especially if you buy into the idea that robots are taking over the workplace. A staggering 63% of UK CEOs expect the headcount in their company to increase over the coming 12 months. So whilst they are actively exploring the benefits of automation, they’re still looking for more and more people. What does this mean?

The clue comes in the skills that CEOs are now looking for. The wish list has shifted, and very quickly. Suddenly, the most valued skills are ‘soft’ and uniquely human capabilities such as adaptability, creativity, innovation and emotional intelligence. These are things that robots and software simply can’t replicate.  So whilst computers far outstrip humans when it comes to analysing vast quantities of raw data, they certainly lack the intuition, judgement and creativity required to make sense of that data.

Back in 2015, we published a report entitled The Most Extraordinary Technology of All where we argued that even though it’s predicted that 53% of all jobs will be replaced by computers by 2025, it’s people who remain at the heart of any organisation. This CEO Survey reinforces that view. Maybe one day we will be replaced – but that’s certainly not happening yet. To my mind there’s a gut instinct that simply can’t be replicated via algorithms, making humans a critical piece of the workplace puzzle.

And that should be driving organisations and their HR functions into immediate action. If 63% of CEOs are hiring, that’s a lot of competition – and they’re all looking for similar, hard-to-find skills. 85% of UK CEOs say it’s difficult to find people with leadership qualities and 71% are struggling to find adaptable talent. That makes for an extremely aggressive recruitment environment.

The risk is that HR has been caught out by this sudden shift in demand. Of course the modern workplace model means there are options available – gig workers and contractors – but that’s not an easy market to navigate either. And given the difficulties organisations have in finding the people they need, creating them internally is just as critical. But how do you develop soft, hard-to-define skills like empathy? Is it even possible?

And then there’s the question of trust. Employees already view automation with suspicion and that’s having a real impact on how they view their employer. Our Most Extraordinary Technology of All report pointed out that 24% of employees don’t trust their employer – and it’s very hard to attract and keep good people if that employer-employee relationship is damaged. The contemporary worker is keenly aware of the importance of purpose – and is demanding clarity on not just the “how” of the company, but the “why.”

HR really has its work cut out over the coming years. It’s clear that the next few decades won’t be about machines taking over from people but about finding a way to exploit technology to the best advantage in the workplace.  That will mean people with the right skills working alongside technology; it will mean developing effective ways to ‘build’ people with the right capabilities internally; and it will mean finding ways of protecting the employer value proposition and nurturing a trusting relationship with employees in an incredibly complex world. Who’s up for the challenge?


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