Emma Parry, Professor of Human Resource Management and Head of Changing World of Work Group
No-one would deny that the world is changing, and probably at a faster pace than most of us can keep up with. Macro level changes to the world’s economic make-up, coupled with technological advancement, changing workforce demographics, global integration and increased competition have meant that approaches and attitudes towards work have transformed, so that the world of work is almost unrecognisable compared to the one in which many of us started our careers.
Technology has leapt forward in the last decade and continues to advance at an accelerating pace. This is not the dystopian vision in which robots have taken over from humans, and yet the threats and promises of science fiction appear ever nearer. Despite the development of sophisticated and rapidly-developing autonomous systems in industries like manufacturing, transport, energy and agriculture, the current trend seems to be in complementing and improving the skills and abilities of human beings, and in improving our efficiency and effectiveness rather than replacing us. In recent years we have seen advances in information technology drive the trend for data-driven decision-making, particularly in relation to drawing on “big data” as a basis for understanding and predicting behaviour. We have moved from an emphasis on virtual reality to one on augmented reality – designed to improve and support human performance – promoting human/cyber teamwork, and the different ways in which people’s job roles will be supported and facilitated by technology.
A major focus is on how technological advancement has shaped the changing needs and expectations of people. The challenges for Human Resource Management practitioners and line managers lie here, in recognising and addressing changing values and expectations and in utilising technologies effectively so as to maximise both employee performance and engagement.
One major development that we are seeing is around the use of sensors to capture data about people. Taking the technology in fitness trackers to monitor not only employee performance but also, physiological responses, cognitive performance, levels of stress, emotions, team interaction and affective responses to different situations. Through the “quantified self movement”, organisations are investigating how they can use wearable technology to support employees to improve their performance while maintaining wellbeing and employee engagement. Advances in artificial intelligence allow the technological system to act as a personal mentor – the future version of the basic Siri-style function on our smartphones will be able to anticipate needs and preferences, provide learning and tips at right moments and mimic an understanding of softer skills. These kinds of augmented employee services will be of particular value in relation to knowledge management within organisations, when it comes to passing on skills from retiring baby boomers to new generations of recruits.
New technologies could therefore aid knowledge management and organisational learning, as well as development at an individual level, helping an organisation develop and maintain the expertise and experience that it needs. These advancements also bring challenges for managers and for HR. We have already seen communication and working patterns change dramatically – the massive increase in connectivity has blurred the boundaries between home and work, meaning that the traditional ideas of a “workplace” or a “working day” no longer exist. The Internet of Things (IoT) will add to this, meaning constant networked connections between people, activities and resources in and outside of workplaces. It is up to employers to manage the delicate balance between optimising performance while facilitating the work-life balance and engagement of employees.
Changes in the external world have also led to changes in the attitudes and expectations of employees. This is not a question of defined ‘generations’ such as those depicted in popular media, but rather an ongoing trend in the morphing characteristics and demands of employees: evidence does not support the idea that millennials, for example, are dramatically different from generation X but rather that attitudes are changing over time due to differences in successive generations experiences as they grow up. For example, younger generations of staff will increasingly want a higher level of feedback, instant appraisal and reassurance: the constant interaction of social media applied to a work environment, work as ongoing multiple conversations. Similarly, they will also expect to be able to share personal opinions and to be involved in organisational decision-making. Organisations and their structures of managers will need to find ways to deal with different working styles, and ways to deal with the kinds of personal assertions and honesty that this form of ‘socialised’ work will bring.<
The ageing workforce and the extension of working life will lead to the danger of polarisation between groups of employees with different attitudes to working practices, the extent of the use of technologies, forms of communication, and workplace culture. Ultimately all staff tend to want the same things: fair pay, rewarding work, an enjoyable, positive environment to spend time in - but employers will need to find ways to get more than just these basics right. Two-way mentoring is likely to be a necessary trend, with experience being shared one way and the value of new tech in the other.
Another trend will be around the demand for ‘meaningful’ careers - the need for a sense that work involves doing something socially valuable beyond financial returns. Greater transparency - demanded by customers and governments - and the availability of data on organisational activities and behaviours will put more pressure on employers to find ways to brand themselves as socially responsible, having a positive effect on communities and employee lives.
Employers will also need to deal with the sense of thwarted ambitions potentially created by the changing political environment. Recent generations of staff have become used to the opportunities brought by globalisation and growth of multinational enterprises, cross-country working and mobility. More protectionism and inward-looking economic policies have the potential to lead to frustration among younger, ambitious recruits and a brain drain into the European Union.
There are significant implications in all of this for the Human Resources function. The flexible workers, gig workers and networks of self-employed freelancers are expected to look after themselves, their own wellbeing, motivation and management, without a role for HR. The independence will suit some people, but not all, and there will be a need for national or regional bodies to provide support for the increasing numbers of workers without the safety nets and guidance from HR. There are going to be many different models of employment relationship - hopefully providing more choice for many groups of people and those with ‘market power’. Academics will increasingly have a role to play in highlighting the issues and risks associated with the future models and in supporting employers in managing the transition from the old models to the new. HR is a profession standing at a crossroads, sometimes looking bemused. Its old administrative role has already been largely replaced by IT and outsourcing, and people management taken on by line managers. The more strategic role in designing work models and driving performance hasn’t always sat well with HR professionals. The HR function is now being asked to be a consultant to the business and to act as interpreters of people data. For the future the profession needs to find and secure its place within new forms of organisations.
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