When we think about the future of work, we often picture robots taking our jobs and a permanent end to the decreasingly popular 9-to-5. While changes as extreme as these may be coming at some point in the future, ongoing technological innovations are changing the future of work today, while subsequent disruptions will continue to shape our working lives tomorrow. Artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, machine learning, and other emerging technologies are already promising to fundamentally change how we work and what we need from our HR functions. The ongoing and upcoming waves of technological change will fundamentally disrupt the way work is done and who does it.
HR functions are starting to engage with these changes: Gartner research shows that one in four HR teams are already using or piloting AI in some form. However, only 10% of Chief HR Officers feel that they have an operational strategy to address the risks of automation. In order for HR to evolve, its leaders need to better understand the technology trends that affect the future of work. HR executives are now expected to evaluate the impact of these trends on their organization, both to leverage them in growing the business and to prepare the organization for the risks they pose.
So how do you proactively prepare for workplace disruptions instead of reactively lagging behind them? We reviewed how some of the most progressive organizations and HR leaders are tracking, assessing, and managing the implications of upcoming technology trends on their employees and the work they do. From our research, we determined that HR leaders must focus on two key areas: identifying and anticipating business disruptions, and preparing for workforce transformation.
Identifying and Anticipating Workplace Disruptions
When we have conversations about AI, automation, and the future of work, there is often a level of uncertainty and fear attached to the topic: 20% of leaders admit to not understanding AI and countless others are unsure of the impact these technologies will have on work and whether or not they are worth an investment. To overcome this knowledge gap, some of the most progressive HR and business leaders have looked to their people for help. Leveraging the expertise of peers and employees to better evaluate trends and their talent impact is an excellent way to ensure that organizations understand their options and make the right investments. Here are two ways an HR leader can approach the issue, either from the top down or from the bottom up:
- Use your peers to assess trends. The heads of business functions already assess the impact of technological trends because they’re often critical components of their functional and growth strategies. Combining the varying levels of expertise across the organization in a coordinated, cross-functional assessment will produce a more complete picture of the opportunities and risks at hand. For example, an IT leader may be able to better evaluate the feasibility and applicability of AI in work processes, whereas HR leaders may have a better sense of employees’ expectations from technology. By asking function leaders simple questions, you can use these conversations to map out the potential impact, disruption, and talent implications of emerging trends for your organization.
- Conduct a bottom-up impact assessment. This involves collecting feedback from employees on their ability to adapt to future changes, as well as their perspective on the threat of their roles being automated. This employee-driven assessment can be a faster alternative to convening cross-functional leadership groups, if implemented judiciously. One organization, Aviva, asked employees a simple question: Can your job be done by a bot? If any of their 16,000 employees raised their hands to say “yes,” Aviva would invest in retraining the employee to update their skill set for a new role. This approach benefits employers and employees, giving them a voice and a role in advocating for their future.
Prepare for Workforce Transformation
Once HR leaders have an understanding of the prevailing technological trends and their potential implications on the workforce, they can use that knowledge to prepare the workforce for future success. Here are some steps HR leaders can take to plan for the coming workforce transformation:
- Identify future critical capabilities. Two-thirds of CHROs say a change in workforce skills will be the biggest driver of organizational growth in the next three years. HR will therefore have a huge role to play in determining what future critical skills are missing from the organization and how to address these gaps through upskilling or targeted recruiting strategies. One way to do this is to create a “capability inventory”: Make a list of the workforce capabilities currently available at your organization and sort them based on how they might need to change in the future, identifying which ones to preserve, enhance, or eliminate. Also note any new capabilities that might be required for success in the future but don’t currently exist at your organization. Collaborating with other leaders in the organization can be very helpful in this exercise.
- Assess your current roles. Armed with what you have learned from your trend assessment and capability inventory, you can now forecast how each role in the organization will likely change in the coming years. Depending on how you expect each role and its associated skill set to evolve, you can place positions into the following five buckets:
- Eliminate and automate the role if you expect the majority of the capabilities required for the role to be replaced by technology. This role runs an unavoidable risk of automation.
- Right-size the role if you expect some of the capabilities required for the role to be eliminated but others to remain necessary. Keep the role, but re-evaluate your organization’s structure to realign the role so it can exist in a new capacity if needed.
- Preserve the role if the skills required for the role are expected to remain unchanged. Keep the role as-is, but stay ahead the curve by continuing to forecast future changes.
- Enhance the role if you are adding new requirements to a role rather than eliminating current ones. Enhance these roles so that they may proactively adapt to the changing work landscape.
- Predict a new role if most of the role’s required capabilities are expected to change in scope and scale. This role is becoming obsolete, so you will need to create an entirely new position to replace it.
In today’s business environment, technological innovation and digital transformation are continuous events; just as HR settles into the changes from one wave of disruption, the next wave of disruptive trends is already on the horizon. In this context of rapid, constant change, it’s important to have a process in place for assessing the organization’s future needs on a continuous basis. HR functions that anticipate and plan for change will inevitably out-compete those who react to changes as they come on an ad hoc basis. By following the steps suggested above, you can prepare your organization to meet the talent challenges of the coming years head-on and lead rather than follow the future evolution of work. Broach this conversation today, and you’ll take a big step toward becoming the kind of strategic HR leader your organization will need tomorrow.