People And Machines – A Workplace Reality

Designing the future of work in a technology driven world…

Technology is one of the biggest drivers of change in the workplace today. Some changes – such as the introduction of new machinery or the creation of new job roles – can be easy to spot. But others are more subtle. How does the changing nature of work impact upon individuals, for example, and affect their state of mind and motivations?

Building up a full picture of the changing nature of work, including technological, procedural and human factors, is a tough challenge. But for Jennifer Cable, expert in Talent Management, Leadership Development and Organisation Design at PA, an innovation and transformation consultancy, it is one that organisations must tackle head on if they wish to succeed.

Technology and business – a complex landscape

When we think about technologies disrupting the world of work, AI is at the forefront of many people’s minds. No other single technology has the potential to alter business operations, improve offerings and transform job roles, and the adoption of AI has been on the rise over the past few years.

This may be so, but for Jennifer Cable, considering technologies at the individual level isn’t the right way of viewing their impact. It’s less about the type of technology and more about how it fits in to an interconnected ecosystem.

From my perspective,” she says, “it’s the multiplicity, the complexity, the whole technological landscape that’s changing the way I approach work. Take something like Skype. We could be having a conversation from anywhere in the world thanks to that technology. It’s a great example of how technology changes every aspect of work – how I get to work, where I work from, how I communicate with people, what activities I do and how I am able to execute those activities. That’s what’s important here in terms of how technology is impacting humanity at work.”

From hype to reality

In order to discover the main drivers for technology adoption in the workplace, as well as its effects and major challenges, PA recently partnered with CIPD on a research project. Their report, People And Machines: From Hype To Reality, uncovers interesting insights about the perception of technology at work and the current concerns of change leaders in this space.

For example, Cable notes that along with the desire to better serve the consumer, companies are also focussing on how they can help their employees with tech.

If we look at the research we see that most organisations are focussing on the customer. So they’re thinking about efficiency, optimisation, cost reduction and a completely new customer service offering,” she says.

However, we are also seeing a focus on the world of work within the organisation. We are seeing that, for example, 19 per cent of the 750 or so organisations surveyed said that the wellbeing of the employees at work was top of their minds when they were choosing to make investment decisions. That’s something that would certainly surprise most of the employees, who are very aware of the customer and the cost equation, but they are less aware that the organisations are thinking about how it will help the people working for them. This shows that there’s a disbelief, a cynicism going on amongst employees about the rationale for investing in technology.”

More haste, more speed

From the initial investment stage all the way through to the implementation of new technology, then, it’s important to put people in the picture. One of the findings of PA’s research is that technology is speeding up the pace of work – a fact that can put more pressure on employees and therefore needs to be carefully managed.

A faster pace of work often means that you are working at a different level of intensity,” Cable explains, “so you might need more resilience, more recovery time. You actually need to work smarter and in a different way.”

This being said, one of the main advantages of many digital technologies is the reduction in the number of monotonous tasks employees have to do. This enables them to work differently and for the company to produce insightful work at a faster rate.

Think back to ancient times – when we stopped being foragers and became farmers,” says Cable. “When you compare the introduction of the plough to the use of a stick to create a hole and plant a seed, the plough is five times faster. The pace of the ability to plant a seed has gone up, but what that really means is that four people have been released to do different, potentially more value-adding tasks.”

Consequently, a faster pace of work doesn’t necessarily mean that I as an individual am working faster,” she notes. “It means that the output of the organisation can happen more quickly. We’ve seen examples of our clients using crowdsharing to create a design that used to take twelve weeks in as little as 12 days, because they can source expertise, share it through the cloud, and get people working on it 24/7. It doesn’t affect the individual so much, it’s more about the collective output.”

A call to arms for HR

When it comes to managing the transition to technological adoption in the workplace, a lot of the responsibility is placed at the door of the HR department. But what does that mean in practice? Cable identifies the key areas of job design, employee communication, and change management, which HR teams must consider when their organisation attempts any technology transformation.

First of all,” she says, “a new technology might be able to simplify an offering or create more value for the organisation. That’s going to have an impact on the way work is done now, which is going to change the design of jobs. It’s going to change the capabilities needed to execute that range of tasks.”

HR is ready and able to do that strategic workforce planning to think about job design, to think about the investment needed in training and development, to think about the impact on career paths and employment opportunities across the organisation.”

The second piece is handling employee communications and change management,” she notes. “There’s a fear amongst employees that their jobs are going to change – or even that they might disappear – so there’s a huge duty in reassurance and in enabling people to adapt and take on new roles.”

In spite of this key remit, PA’s research shows that HR is the department least likely to be involved in decisions on AI and automation – two of the biggest branches of technological change in an organisation. According to Cable, this may partly be due to the fact that HR departments themselves receive little investment in technology. However, it is no excuse for keeping these central players from the conversation.

Technology is probably the biggest single trend that is shaping the nature of our economy, our ability as individuals to be effective, and the potential for an organisation to survive. It is fundamentally changing the makeup of people that are needed in the organisation. HR therefore must be there to help IT or production colleagues understand the people consequence of the decisions they’re making. HR needs to be at the table to help manage that transition. To make sure that the organisation is ready and able to move very quickly towards the desired positive benefits, and maximise the competitive opportunity.”

Who might get left behind?

As the rise of technology continues to affect the makeup of job roles, there are opportunities for human workers to concentrate on higher value tasks. With automation removing mundane, repetitive aspects of jobs, we can all focus a little bit more on work that interests us.

Cable notes that 43 per cent of people surveyed said they spent more time learning new things – a fact which not only makes their work more diverse but also gives them access to better career and wellbeing prospects.

If you go back to classic motivation theory, people want to have the opportunity to grow, to develop, to be more economically successful and provide for their families,” she says. “What we’re seeing is that with the introduction of new technology, 40 per cent of people are reporting more control over their working hours, and 50 per cent a reduction in monotonous tasks. Work is becoming more interesting, more stimulating, and that has a consequent benefit on mental health. Something that helps you enjoy your work more and contribute to the best of your potential has to be good news for the individual, the organisation and the UK as a whole.”

That said, for people to seize this kind of opportunity they must be able to embrace change, as well as having access to learning and reskilling programmes to help them on their journey. As mentioned above, this is one area where HR cannot afford to drop the ball. Similarly, another crucial factor to consider is ensuring that all employees are able to benefit on an equal basis.

We have to ask ourselves,” says Cable, “if we don’t act and invest with new technology, who might be left behind? 15 per cent of organisations were saying they didn’t see any need to invest in new technology. Those organisations are essentially taking a back seat, and choosing not to take advantage of all the new things around us.”

Worryingly, Cable observes, an area where that investment is least likely to be made is HR.

HR departments tend to have a slightly more female workforce. Is this therefore another inhibitor to women being able to contribute in technology-enabled organisations?

It’s a subtle point, but this is certainly something that HR – and organisations in general – should be aware of. If we want to make sure everyone can be successful in a technology driven world, then that means providing equal access to technology opportunities. In the workplace of the future, this could be the difference between ensuring the UK’s success on the global stage, and consigning our businesses to a small part of history.

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