As huge numbers of employees face displacement by technology over the coming decade, nearly half all jobs in manufacturing according to some, what is the HR agenda to mitigate the human cost of this technological revolution?
Even where jobs are maintained there will be increasing technological oversight of employees through performance monitoring aided by devices such as wearables that track everything the employee is doing throughout the day. This can include giving the employer real time feedback on interactions of employees with customers for example, and some wearables can identify employee behaviours such as tone of voice.
It may be these technologies are presented in ways which make them seem innocuous, but the reality is that enterprises are beginning to gather data on employees that go beyond anything previously possible.
It is a halfway house to an automated environment as the human employee is being treated almost as a “hybrid human”, virtually automated and managed as a production tool.
These innovative systems may of course pick up and prove employee misbehaviours, or sustained failure to perform, to justify disciplinary action. However, even if employees are mostly doing their jobs well the fact they are being monitored so closely will be at times a cause of stress if their human weaknesses are reducing their productivity and it is instantly obvious to the employer.
With increased data to analyse, and the algorithms to do it very efficiently, any employer is likely to consider systems that will ensure a near robotic level of performance by the “hybrid human” employee. It is important never to under estimate the pressure to maximise corporate profit, and indeed to survive against competition using more cost effective new technologies. It may also be the case that major advisory businesses, like some global consultancy brands, will be promoting active investment in human displacement technologies that they help to advise on and introduce in the cause of increased productivity and profit.
On the whole wages for low skilled work have been stagnating globally for some years now, which helps preserve jobs, but costs of automation are falling. The economic choice of human or robot will become more weighted in favour of the robot over the next few years, depending on which part of the world we are talking about. The lowest cost markets for human labour may keep jobs longest, say a couple of decades. The highest cost labour markets would be steered towards automation much quicker. It is probable the timescale is a range of 5-25 years across the world in terms of material impact on traditional work opportunities.
The International Labour Organisation in 2017 published an Inception Report for the Global Commission on the Future of Work. In analysing megatrends the Report identified that since 2010 the number of operational industrial robots has increased on average 9% a year, mainly deployed in the manufacturing sector in developed countries. It stated that today’s technological advances are emerging at an unprecedented rate.
There is of course the likelihood that technology will accentuate the widening income inequality across countries and regions. It is likely the same effects will be seen in the UK increasing the income inequality and precariousness of work across regions, with automation potentially impacting jobs in the north more than the south.
The developing countries of the world face possibly the greatest threat, with the World Bank predicting that two-thirds of all jobs in developing countries are susceptible to automation. That is a theoretical assessment but if even partly true then hugely important. At least a transition is likely when a level of automation reduces jobs but allows a continuation of human labour alongside robots. But for how long?
In the potentially increased scrutiny that new technology will also offer in the workplace, even managers will not be exempt from scrutiny, and could equally be tracked on their performance and how they manage their teams. It will be good if poor management can be more easily seen and fairly remedied, as bad managers are of course one of the main reasons employees leave their jobs, but again some will ask what is left of the mutual trust and confidence between employer and employee that would normally be the crucial ingredient of job satisfaction and engagement. Will this become a key factor about who people want to work for if they have a choice?
How this data on employee behaviours and performance is kept securely and what is done with it may become a big issue, especially as employment litigation is likely to involve evidence of the data and systems in use that the employer relies on. Lawyers for claimants are likely to try and expose any misuse of data.
Human Rights privacy protection also covers protection of private and family life, but employers may insist on devices for performance tracking in the workplace. If it is the only work obtainable as job opportunities diminish, it is likely employees will agree anything that gets them the job. Much as today most of us instantly agree, without reading, all sorts of conditions about use of websites and use of our data. The GDPR is a welcome measure to provide some protection for individuals, but in truth the need for data protection goes way beyond what the GDPR so far provides.
A fundamental issue now pending for HR leaders is how they fulfil their own important role in managing the trust and confidence inherent in any employment relationship, safeguarding employee privacy and use of personal data, and identifying both legal and ethical risks arising from the introduction of intrusive technologies in the cause of productivity gains and efficiency.
There may never have been a greater challenge for HR professionals than how they will play their part in humanising technology innovation and managing the changes that flow from an accelerated pace of change in access to and scope of automation, data analysis and augmented intelligence.
The control of data about individuals generally, and how that is harvested from numerous sources people hardly realise, is a much wider issue for society and legal interventions such as GDPR compliance. However, in the workplace it would be good to believe HR has “human” in its values as well as its name, and how “human” HR is will be increasingly tested by the current acceleration of workplace technologies.