How HR Can Prepare for the Future Workforce (and Robots)

Artificial intelligence, automation, and technology are changing the world of work, disrupting industries, and reshaping the jobs performed by humans, according to a panel of speakers at a recent conference.

HR practitioners will play a pivotal role in helping employees during these changes, because even as some jobs become obsolete, others will be created that require new and different skill sets, the speakers told attendees at the WorldatWork 2017 Total Rewards Conference in Washington, D.C.

There’s always a concern that new technology will displace workers, according to Beth Browde, a consultant with Mercer. "What part of my job or my kids’ jobs might be at risk from a machine?" she asked.

Machines can analyze huge data sets and recognize patterns in an accurate and unbiased way, Browde said. "The rote tasks that humans are doing, they won’t be doing anymore," she said.

Technology is making some things easier at companies like Teva Pharmaceuticals, according to Brenda Vesey, Teva’s senior VP of HR integration and transformational programs. For example, a program can sort patient files faster to find candidates for clinical trials.

The company saves time and money by using technology to take this task out of human hands, Vesey said. However, the shift also creates a need for new skills, and Teva still relies on humans to handle other aspects of its drug trials.

Value Proposition Is Key

In the face of such change, employers must overcome unusual challenges to cultivate a thriving workforce. Vesey said the most difficult part will be trying to prepare for an unknown future. Companies have to consider what positions they’ll really need, who might fill them, and how much compensation will be required for those jobs.

To ensure sufficient staffing levels, she said, organizations need to examine their employee value propositions. The power has shifted to the job candidate, so companies should view their employees as customers who can easily go elsewhere, she added.

Vesey also suggested looking ahead in order to understand tomorrow’s in-demand skill sets. She said one main area is cognitive skills, which include design thinking, predictive analytics, and global mindset, and a second main area is collaboration skills, such as inclusive leadership, digital leadership, and virtual collaboration.

According to Sam Liu, another Mercer consultant on the panel, employers can encourage employees to develop these types of skills by providing them with opportunities to learn, whether it’s through informal means, in-house training, or connections with local universities. Even such things as collaborative projects and blogs can help employees learn and gain new skills, he said.

As part of the staffing challenge, employers need to figure out what employees value so they can retain skilled people, Browde said. Compensation is always an important piece of the employee value proposition, but it takes more than that component to keep them.

"When you get the equation right, employees feel empowered, engaged, and happy to do what they’re doing," Browde said. A lack of empowerment is problematic, she added, because employees will stay, but they won’t put in much discretionary effort.

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