The scramble for company and career security during pandemic-driven 2020 has highlighted the critical importance of celebrating and protecting human resources in a rapidly transforming digital workplace.
With social distancing and the online workspace becoming a ‘new normal’, thanks to Covid-19, technology naturally picked up speed, driving automation, artificial intelligence and robot know-how at unprecedented rates.
Our digital world is evolving like never before – but at what cost to the human employee?
The good news is that we’re not descending into science-fiction chaos, in which robots replace people.
In fact, says tech transformation company The Digital Workforce Group (DWG), we’ve seen the opposite: a greater appreciation of human work; particularly those essential workers on the frontline.
“Humans have been at the very centre of the innovative thinking, compassion, and problem-solving that (have) helped us through this crisis,” says the DWG.
Therefore, while automation is welcomed, investment in Human Capital is a priority focus.
The role of automation
There has always been a vacuum for increasing reliance on technology. It’s cost-effective, clear-cut in terms of deliverables, won’t shy away from ‘dirty work’ and doesn’t need a retirement plan.
Chat bots, for example, cut response time, convey relevant information quickly and effectively improve customer experience and service.
But a chat bot, argues the DWG, won’t take your business to the next level – and that’s where people are still your gold standard.
“A speedy and efficient chat bot can answer the majority of your audience’s queries – but failing that, a friendly voice on the phone can make or break your reputation.”
Putting people first
It’s true that artificial intelligence poses a threat to several traditional industries – but the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report 2018 concludes that while some human jobs will disappear, others will appear to take their place.
Ideally, smart companies should divert the money saved by automation into human resources investment – upskilling staff, bolstering technological proficiency and solidifying the role of humans as drivers of machines, rather than the other way round.
The WEF also found that, during Covid-19, the human-robot collaboration was necessary and positive.
In manufacturing, for instance, it was clear that “automation alone can be expensive and inflexible, because robots are typically designed to carry out just one precise task.”
The best scenario was to pair robots with human workers, combining the “strength and speed of industrial robots with the creativity and ingenuity of humans.”
Talent vs technology
Digital HR is gaining traction worldwide, as savvy human resources pundits embrace this “process optimisation” methodology, in which social, mobile, analytics and cloud (SMAC) are leveraged to make HR more efficient, effective and connected.
The trend, however, loops back to an appreciation of the human element – technology will be a means to an end, and not an end in itself.
Harvard Business Review’s Becky Frankiewicz and Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic report that, contrary to popular belief, “digital transformation is less about technology and more about people.”
Key here is putting people first, driven by purpose and potential, and supporting soft skills.
While the recruitment market is “hot for cybersecurity analysts, software engineers and data scientists”, key technological skills are soft, not hard – so investing in staff development is smart.
Human Resources executives are now critical in driving digital change and the seamless integration of AI into organisations.
Their roles have expanded beyond HR policies and systems; they are key managers of the AI/human hybrid work model and play strategic partnership roles in 21st-century business.
As robotics and automation grow rapidly, notes the DWG report, we can enhance our human and digital worlds in tandem.
Mohit Joshi of www.infosys.com explains that putting machines (AI, robots and robotic software) into rule-based, competitive jobs leaves “a whole lot of other jobs open for the human workforce” – jobs matching skills such as empathy, problem-seeking and solution-finding.
The HR manager is an ideal custodian of this delicate balancing act – absorbing AI into the workplace, while reassuring employees that they are not under threat as a result.
“Articulating the organisation’s vision for embracing AI within the workforce, establishing clear policies, and implementing the right measures will go a long way in convincing employees that the opportunities (offered by) AI far outweigh its threats.”
Tsholofelo Nketane is a director at Tuesday Consulting, a Johannesburg-based executive search and advisory firm. www.tuesday.co.za