UNLEASH London 2019: Good news for HR

Last week saw more than 2,500 HR folk gathering for UNLEASH London, the latest stop on the global tech-dedicated HR conference and expo for enterprise HR professionals. Yet despite the emphasis on all things digital, it was a call for work to be made more ‘human’ that grabbed the headlines.

In one of the keynote presentations, author, entrepreneur and consultant Tim Leberecht said that although technology was increasing productivity and erasing monotony, it was disrupting the way people think and feel about work, and making it harder for them to find a sense of purpose in what they do.

HR practitioners, he suggested, should be in the vanguard of making work more ‘romantic’ again, something they could do by following three key rules: “do the unnecessary, create intimacy and suffer a little.”

An article in Personnel Today explains that what Leberecht means by this, is that organisations sometimes have to make decisions that don’t always make business sense, but that inspire and unite employees; that they need to find ways to connect people in ways that technology cannot; and that they have to learn how to lose and end things in order to move on.

So if HR are to be the New Romantics in the future world of work, what steps should they be taking to make work more human?

1. Emphasise soft skills

There’s a growing body of research to suggest that soft skills will be just as, if not more important than digital know-how, in the workforce of the future. Yes, employees need to keep abreast of developments in Artificial Intelligence and understand how Big Data or biometrics might affect the way they go about their jobs. But tech can’t do everything, and inter-personal skills are going to be key in the future world of work. Employees need to develop their self-awareness, Emotional Intelligence and interpersonal skills, such as influencing and communication, so that they can successfully manage the interface between technology and people. They also need to develop resilience, learning agility and the ability to thrive through change. Organisations need to prioritise developing these skills – and to emphasise them early in people’s careers, rather than waiting until they get into management positions.

2. Keep communicating

The constant stream of ‘the robots are coming’ type predictions are naturally worrying for employees. Only this week, the Office for National Statistics has said that 1.5 million people in England are at high risk of losing their jobs to automation. Organisations need to be overt about any plans they may have to either bring AI into the business or further develop its use. Shrouding plans in secrecy will only lead to a decline in trust and disengagement. Being open about what’s being explored can help to create a sense of excitement and provide reassurance about the future. If people know what is on the horizon, it will also encourage them to think about what new skills they may need to develop and how they can be part of the journey.

3. Involve people in decision-making

Employees at all levels can make an enormous contribution to the way jobs – and the technology to support them – can be developed in the future. It’s the people at the coal face who often know best about how operations can be streamlined and what would make a real difference to productivity. Don’t restrict discussions about possible automation to the IT folk alone. Staff may not understand the intricacies of algorithms, but they will be able to help developers understand the intricacies of the job, so that the ‘robots’ can be programmed more efficiently. Employee forums can be a great way to bring people together so that the business can draw on their ideas and expertise. Or perhaps consider setting up project teams that bring the ‘techies’ together with front line staff.

4. Create opportunities for connection

Technology has made it easier than ever for people to work remotely, round the clock and across boundaries. They can access all the information they need from their phone, laptop or mobile device – and thanks to platforms such as Skype and Zoom, it’s possible to join meetings from wherever you may be. The irony, however, is that at a time when we have never been better connected, we have also never been more lonely and isolated. Organisations need to make efforts to bring people together, so that they can re-establish the all-important human connection. The solutions will vary from business to business, but it’s important to try and work at least some face-to-face time into work processes. Social occasions are important too. The company Summer party/awayday/retreat may not be a business priority on the surface, but it will provide employees with a vital chance to network and build relationships with their colleagues.

5. Focus on what will be gained, as well as what will be lost.

Both the World Economic Forum and PwC have predicted that Artificial Intelligence will create as many jobs as it will replace over the next 20 years. Data analysts, software developers and social media specialists, for example, are likely to be in high demand across all industries – while according to the latest ONS survey, those at lowest risk of losing their jobs are medical practitioners and teaching and training professionals. HR practitioners need to make sure that they think not just about the jobs that will be disappearing, but also about the new ones that will be emerging as the organisation heads into the future. Now, more than ever before, HR needs to make sure they have their finger on the pulse of how the world of work is changing – and what they need to do in response to support their organisations.

Date for your diary

The CIPD’s forthcoming Festival of Work (12-13 June) promises to provide another opportunity to explore how technology can be harnessed for the good of all and how employees can be equipped with the skills they need to succeed in the future workforce.

You’ll find Cezanne HR on stand D68, where they’ll be showcasing the latest updates to their HR software suite, and happy to talk about how organisations like your own are digitising HR so they can free up time and have more space to focus on the human aspect of HR.

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