Monumental changes are coming to our workplaces. That’s not news, but it is something that tends to be discussed in a dream-like way and not a practical one.

Automation, artificial intelligence (AI) and blockchain are no longer pipedreams or work-in-development but are really going to hit the mainstream in just a few years. Businesses need to get ready for this new technology which will impact every department - especially HR.

HR is on the frontline because the likes of AI and automation will fundamentally alter our behaviour at work. Technology will offer new opportunities for HR and make some work easier, while also creating new challenges for HR professionals to deal with.

Automation and the need to protect employees

Job losses created through rising automation, for example, which has been well documented in the media. Many millions of jobs are projected to be at risk. Some of this could be seen as scaremongering, but it isn’t a topic that can be ignored by today’s HR department or filed away as something to deal with in a decade’s time.

Today’s workers see endless headlines stating that the job losses from AI will be widespread, though not as bad as first predicted, or “at least as large as the first three industrial revolutions” - depending on what outlet is reporting. It’s hard to know what to believe and that’s where HR needs to step in to reassure employees.

It could be that many jobs in an organisation are threatened by automation. Certainly there are repetitive roles that require little-to-no strategic, creative or emotional skill, and some of these will be under threat. HR needs to identify what roles are at risk and have plans for those employees to either switch roles or re-train. Of course, AI and automation will create some completely new roles which displaced employees could enter into - with the right skills.

HR itself will adapt. Specific teams or individuals might have to be appointed to solely focus on moving employees into different jobs, helping them to find new companies or training.

Communicating these plans will be key. It will let people know that they won’t be left out in the cold, which makes it more likely that they will embrace any change that happens in their workplace. If they’re always watching out for a pink slip then they probably won’t be on-board with any new technology that they see as threatening their role.

Changing the way people learn and develop

Training and education will play a large part in gaining buy-in and reassuring the workforce. There will always be a role for more formal learning and development, alongside annual appraisals and performance reviews. However, there is also a rising trend for more informal training opportunities, such as self-directed elearning through services like Lynda or Udemy, or short courses offered by the General Assembly (for example).

Feedback is also moving towards informality with Millennials, in particular, preferring more regular feedback and catch-up conversations with managers. Younger employees (Millennials and Generation Z) generally have different work styles and ambitions compared to older colleagues. This is another thing that HR teams need to understand and embrace if they are to satisfy and retain employees in the future.

The rise of career coaching

Career coaches are no longer reserved just for the C-Suite. For HR professionals, this might mean a completely new aspect to their role.

Some HR teams might be called on to become career coaches for their organisation. Those that do will need to be trained in coaching techniques and how to remain impartial. They will also have to understand wider theories that relate to other job roles - management practices or the career routes within digital marketing, for example.

In larger organisations, it’s more likely that HR leaders will find themselves coordinating a coaching programme. An external coach can come in to talk to the workforce and identify potential career steps or further learning opportunities.

Data to help HR work

HR is also becoming more data-driven. Organisations are collecting plenty of data that can be analysed by HR teams to better understand employee performance, satisfaction and their experience of the workplace. This needs specific analytical skills, so we’re likely to see more in-house HR data analysts or third-party consultants being hired.

Unlocking the data within HR can lead to some interesting innovations. IBM has been using data to help with employee retention. It collects data on employee location, job type, skills and pay to predict the likelihood of leaving - while protecting employee privacy. It has saved IBM around $300 million so far, in reducing hiring and new employee training costs.

Food manufacturer Kraft Heinz has recently hired a 'director of people analytics', specifically focused on finding new ways to use HR data. Some of the initiatives it is exploring include using data for retention and finding the best way to encourage someone to stay at the company and identifying people deserving of recognition, development or an award.

HR needs to adapt to the remote working trend

New tools will emerge to help HR teams to encourage employee engagement and communications. This is particularly important considering the increase in remote working.

Around one in three employees is expected to work remotely by 2030. Making sure distributed teams are engaged - and feel a sense of belonging - is as important as ensuring that they are productive.

There will be 'EngageTech' tools that come to the fore, to bring people together. Your company culture and ability to hire and retain talent will depend on it.

HR must prepare itself (and everyone else) for the future

The future of work is upon us, but many employees (and employers) still don’t understand what this means for their day-to-day work.

The pressure is on HR to prepare themselves and their organisations for the significant changes coming to every industry. That means HR professionals need to learn about all emerging technology and the issues surrounding them. Employees will be turning to HR to answer questions like, “What skills should I be developing to future-proof my career?” and HR needs to be able to confidently answer them.

At the same time, HR departments are going to evolve and adapt because of new technology, trends and challenges. There’ll be more analysts within HR teams, perhaps someone purely dedicated to addressing job losses from automation, and even a couple of career coaches.

Whatever the next decade holds, you can be sure that HR will be the first to feel the impact of it. Today’s HR teams need to step up, swot up and get ready - because the future is coming for you. Ready or not.

Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash.