Technology in the workplace; what happens when it’s the focus?
Technology in the workplace is not a new phenomenon but a continuous drive towards automation which has been taking place to varying degrees since the rise of Manchester Capitalism and the Industrial Revolution. As such, there is much we can learn from history regarding the nature of work.
The rise in aggressive automation drives rationalisation which changes the role of HR, to one not focussed on the soft elements of work (creativity, individualism, team work), but in the measurable objectified elements of work. The process of work is formulated to a “Fordist” degree and the focus of HR is to measure performance against that formula. Therefore, a softer / motivational / engagement rhetoric is replaced with a controlling / workflow / target-based rhetoric.
What do HR need to do to ensure success in this environment?
As well as the challenges presented with rationalising a workforce and the potential industrial action that can hinder a business through that time and beyond, there is also the challenge of adopting a more rational culture and managing a workforce that is much more transient, self-centred and cynical than ever. The employees who survive the introduction of aggressive automation and subsequent workforce rationalisation, will be required to spearhead competiveness. Ideas such as “creativity” become focussed in a smaller number of individuals who are now more objectively measured than ever before.
The challenges, therefore, I believe HR will have to face is no different to what they have been faced with historically – it is, however, much more acute. How to manage a workforce that is more transient, self-centred and cynical whilst also being prepared to outsource them mechanically (robots/automation) or contractually (through outsource agreements) once economically and technologically viable. How do you “control” the remaining employees when they have no commitment to you through duty, nor do they believe HR when it endeavours to demonstrate commitment to them? How do you foster creativity in a culture of rationalisation?
Due to the competing factors of creativity and rationalisation, HR need to focus on their message more than ever. HR must adopt more aggressive methods in their softer responsibilities – hence the rise in the importance of “engagement” in the most senior positions of the workforce. They must also monitor and be prepared for all levels of employee challenge/resistance – from Industrial Action to cynicism.
What else? HR need to support business growth and improve relations with operations…
Robotics and automation also require the discussion of macro-economic challenges such as the “economic cycle”. Historically, the role of work changed in the UK to that of a more service based economy following the adoption of automation and globalisation. Should our current employee workforce notice similar challenges, people will need to think about the gaps in work left to fill. Without salaries, people will not buy things. Coupled with the accumulative nature of national debt we not only cannot simply shrink our economy to suit our buying power we must grow it to service the accumulative nature of debt.
Therefore, the challenge organisations have is to continually find new markets as we exhaust those in our closest vicinity. This will drive the importance of marketing and globalisation more than ever. We need to persuade people to keep the cycle going and we need to find new people to ensure it cycles quicker.
Technology in the workplace is nothing new!
In my opinion, if Robotics is a given, then HR need to focus on – supporting the business to find new markets, focus on the most important positions in the business and manage those employees they don’t need out of the business.
In my experience, HR teams are not always set up to focus on the latter, as there is usually a large disconnect between operations and HR. The rise in robotics places the role of operations in a huge spotlight. If HR do not adopt the rational objective rhetoric required to build their relationship with this department they will become increasingly marginalised as the employees they are traditionally responsibly “caring for” dwindle.
This, you may argue is nothing new – but then technology in the workplace is nothing new – it is just more important than ever.