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People-powered technology: how to engage workers in the new, automation-driven workplace

Automation in the workplace is inevitable. However, engaging employees with the technology that is impacting on them is a practical way to mitigate disruption and make tangible gains right across your business. David Howell reports
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Worker and machine

As technologies including artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, bots and automation increasingly enter the workplace, it’s critical that your business engages with your workforce to ensure the integration of these new technologies is not disruptive. Technologies can deliver many advantages, but the humans using these systems must not be forgotten.

The concern is that automation, in particular, will have a devastating impact on workforces across the UK. According to the Office for National Statistics, some 1.5 million people in England alone are at a high risk of losing their jobs to automation. It analysed the jobs of 20 million people in 2017 and found 7.4% of these were at high risk of being replaced.

The rapid adoption of various technologies can be unsettling for employees. However, if the introduction of these technologies is managed sensibly, the benefits of these changes can be harnessed. Here, HR professionals have a pivotal role to play.

Showing employees how the new technology will support them in their role is essential in gaining support and a positive perception of new tech adoption. Leading by example is also crucial: business leaders must walk the walk in adhering to the latest technology themselves

Think about your business and how it currently uses technology. Now carefully look at the changes that the introduction of new technologies could bring. If implemented with each worker's needs, concerns, wellbeing and productivity firmly in mind, any new technology can be applied across your workforce. The key is to act today and lay your plans for a sensible introduction timetable that always places individual workers first.

Katharine Henley, workforce transformation expert at PA Consulting, says: “Our research found that AI/automation can increase wellbeing by providing more control, more freedom over where people work and increasingly more complex or interesting tasks. If HR teams work closely with IT to plan their future organisation in the right way, our future workforce could find the work more rewarding and enjoyable. Younger generations are looking at the workplace as somewhere to curate different experiences. Employers that focus on the creation of a better employee experience will attract the best talent."

Creative destruction

Job transition, of course, is not new. HR professionals have been handling this across their workforces for decades. Technological change, however, could be more widespread and have a further profound impact on a workforce than merely a change of job description. These changes, though, can be managed to ensure that your business reaps the benefits and maintains an engaged workforce that can use the new tools with ease.

In its report, Creating South Africa’s Future Workforce, Accenture succinctly states: “Instead of being replaced by machines, humans must learn to collaborate with machines to enhance their own productivity and ingenuity. We must learn to 'run with the machine'.”

Mark Fenton O’Creevy, professor of organisational behaviour at Open University Business School, agrees, saying one of the keys to human success is our skill in adaptive reasoning.

“We are constantly prone to biases, rely on simplistic and flawed heuristics and, even when trained in statistics, we fail to apply even the most basic rules of probability effectively. Despite this, humans have been a remarkable evolutionary success story and have adapted to many different environments.

“Recent developments within the psychology discipline reveal that the human brain is capable of navigating highly complex and uncertain environments with a sophistication that is beyond more artificial forms of intelligence. This raises interesting and timely questions about the optimal balance between man and machine. The respective strengths of each may mean that, in complex fields, superior decision-making performance is best achieved through combining human and machine intelligence, rather than choosing between them.”

The fear that machines will replace the human component of businesses has been growing for several years. The key is to place these new technologies into context and emphasise the advantages they can bring to a workforce.

HR, then, has a pivotal role to play to ensure that high levels of engagement are maintained throughout the implementation process. The anxiety that will be felt by a workforce must be clearly understood and answered with practical solutions.

Alexandra Levit, author of Humanity Works, which discusses how to ally humans with technology to develop an agile, future-proof and superpowered workforce, offers this practical advice: “Demonstrate how the new technology drives the overall purpose and vision of the organisation. Show people exactly how the new technology will make their jobs easier and more productive. Make the new technology easy to adopt and use.”

Engagement for gain

Ensuring your employees are fully aware of your plans for new technology in your business will minimise anxiety and show them that the systems you want to implement can be beneficial. Says Daniel Pitchford, co-founder of content portal AI Business: “I have seen most success through being totally transparent, ensuring employees are clear on how these technologies will personally benefit them rather than highlighting the overall benefits for the business.

“Showing employees how the new technology will support them in their role is essential in gaining support and a positive perception of new tech adoption. Leading by example is also crucial: business leaders must walk the walk in adhering to the latest technology themselves.”

McKinsey & Company has shown that 60% of occupations comprise at least 30% of activities that could be automated. For HR looking to develop its engagement strategies for the introduction of new technologies, illustrating how automated technologies could free workforces from these tasks is a powerful and practical approach to take. Indeed, your business can reinforce the roles of employees to enable them to use more of their creativity, imagination and the social intelligence they have. Here, technology becomes their enabling partner.

Eugenio Pirri, chief people and culture officer at Dorchester Collection, advises: “As with any type of employee engagement, it's about talking to people as adults. Being open and honest. Knowing where technology will have the greatest impact and what that means for the person in front of you.

“Fear and disengagement can only survive when it is allowed to run free. If we take a truly pro-active and positive stance, talking to our people, discussing their aspirations and options and communicating with them the vast opportunities available to them (for example upskilling, re-training, re-deploying), then there is no reason to be fearful of what is to come.”

Martin Kirke, former group HR director at the Post Office and now an adviser to companies in digital and AI tech for the HR marketplace, agrees: “I think you need to start at the top. There are ways you can start to educate the leadership of the company so that this leadership really understands the technology and where it's going. And then, for it to be truly inclusive, you've got to look at the differential impacts because it will be different for different groups. It’s really important that we're open and honest with people about it because it isn't going to feel inclusive if my job is at threat. If it's being invested in purely as automation to replace jobs and skills, then it's hard to see that as inclusive.

“But there are many cases where actually we'll be enhancing it's important that we look at what learning is required in order to leverage that technology. And the best people to do that are the people who are doing the jobs themselves. So it is about making sure that the people who do the jobs understand what the potential is of the technology and what they need to do to apply it effectively in their work.”

Turning a view that technology – particularly automation – will negatively impact a worker into a positive attitude that enables them to see the benefits and embrace the technology is the core goal of HR across your business. CIPD, in its report into the impact of AI, concludes: "The research shows that AI and automation are bringing huge change to workplaces. However, it also found that employers are often not managing these significant changes with an effective people strategy. In particular, HR is missing from key conversations on the introduction of new technology.”

Often, the overriding response that comes back from a workforce when HR raises the issue of change is, why is this happening? Employees do understand that businesses need to change and evolve, and today that will inevitably mean using more technology to achieve this. But as Isabel Naidoo, people strategy and analytics at FIS, pointed out at the recent PAFOW 2019 conference:

“As a non-technologist, I have a point of view on technology: in the real world, most of us are using a phone with lots and lots of different apps. We have absolutely no problem switching from one technology to another. You know why? Because it's easy. I tell my team, "If you're going to give me a technology that requires a job aid, I don't want to do it. It's too difficult." My point of view is that systems can cohabit and exist quite easily next to each other - the problems arise because we're making them too complicated, our processes are convoluted, they're not simple, and they're not fast enough.”

Ultimately generating engagement with the new technologies your business wants to implement means understanding and then addressing with practical solutions the concerns of your workforce. As an HR professional, if you work with them, new technologies will be embraced and not feared. The key, though, is to start that engagement process today.

Your Technology Engagement checklist

Use this checklist to start your engagement process:

1. Assess, quantify and analyse

It’s critical to understand the technology your company wants to implement. Assess how this could impact your workforce. Analyse their concerns to develop a rollout plan that has high levels of engagement as a foundation.

2. Engage and include

Businesses that failed to implement new technologies successfully invariably did not adequately communicate their goals to their workforces. HR should include workers in each stage of deployment to allay any fears and to identify worries and anxieties.

3. Don’t delay, start today

Beginning your engagement process as soon as possible is vital to ensure full buy-in by your workforce. Digital transformation is a long process that must take a workforce along with it to avoid becoming adversarial.

4. Emphasise empowerment

Your implementation plan should focus on how new technologies can improve an employee's life from task-orientated work to their wellbeing. Technology can unlock the creative and social aspects of work, but as an HR professional, you need to communicate these advantages clearly.

5. Why is change happening?

This is the question employees will always initially ask. HR should clearly communicate what is motivating these changes. Once a workforce understands this and can see how these changes can enhance their jobs and lives, defining their implementation journey becomes an exercise with little friction.

Published 26 June 2019

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