Understanding the future of work to understand the future of HR

One of my favourite topics to discuss with other business leaders at the moment is their take on The Future of Work – I put this in capitals as it seems to be revered as a subject at the moment!

It is interesting how the views are quite varied and polarised. The undeniable common theme is that there is definitely a changing world due to technology and the pace of change is increasing. Maybe this is why it is such a “hot topic”. Previously you could rely on university professors to spend 10 years researching this area, or watching the TV show “Tomorrow’s World” and be saying “ooooo” at the screen showing the future amazements of the future.

These days there is a radical shift in technology virtually every year in how we interact with the world. If you jumped back “Doctor Who-style” only 10 years to 2007 you would already notice the difference:

  • No hybrid cars or buses, therefore more pollution in our cities
  • Nobody walking into you as everyone is looking ahead instead of at their phones as they walk along the pavement
  • People asking for directions in cars as satnavs still a rare and expensive technology
  • Food shops at capacity with long queues on Friday nights as online shopping was virtually non-existent
  • People using tiny Nokia phones to “talk” to each other rather than type with their thumbs

So imagine as the pace of technological change increases what 2027 will look like. Views vary from Terminator-style doomsday scenarios to people shunning technology to live simpler lives. But in reality we can extrapolate out 5-10 years with a degree of certainty based on the tech pipeline and people behaviours, not helped by larger political events, I agree.

To understand the impact on HR Professionals, we need to look at consumer habits as this will dictate how work environments will change direct (change in customer shopping habits) or indirectly (bringing how I do things outside work, inside work).

In this article, I propose one of the changes we will experience is that there will be a shift in work towards giving amazing service and the need for highly emotionally intelligent workers.

Let me give a couple of examples where this is happening now:

1) Out of town fast food outlets

I recently went to an out of town McDonald’s. As you enter you now have a huge touch screen to place your order. You tap on the pictures and select your own unique meal offer in your own time in a smartphone-style way. You tell the system which zone in the restaurant you will sit in and take your receipt, putting it on your table so the employees can see the number.

After a few minutes your food arrives and a very courteous person asks how your day is going, would you like anything else, can I get you some sauces, etc.. Your personal interaction is positive, adding value to make you feel you are special. It is a long way from queuing up and being asked by a bored employee if “you want fries with that”.

McDonald’s has taken the decision to automate the repetitive human tasks and release employees to use their own personality more when interacting with the customer. Yes, I expect that there is a cost reduction element to the project but as a customer I left with a very positive feeling about the brand and its people. However, this only works if the people you interact with you have the right behaviours and skills to empathise and react to each individual customer in the right way.

McDonald’s therefore needs to employ people with high EQ and adaptability for their front of house, rather than who can operate the till fastest – two very different sets of skills.

2) The Aviation Industry – Economy vs Premium

Recently I flew to The Netherlands and on my return I was intrigued to see the airport had installed automatic bag check-in. With no employee at the station you merely scan your passport and a small bunker opens, you put in your bag, agree you have no forbidden items and it whisks your bag away and gives you your boarding pass.

I knew I had extra leg room as I had pre-selected my seat online. I boarded the plane, was shown a safety video and enjoyed a one hour flight to London, e-checked my passport and collected my bag that had automatically been delivered to my designated luggage reclaim belt where I then got a driverless Pod back to my car in the car park. Bliss! – I had an efficient flight with little human interaction and high automation – expectations met!

However, what if I want to fly Business? I expect an airport lounge with courteous staff greeting me, nice fresh food prepared on site, a tidy lounge with timely clearing of glasses, plates etc. I expect to be met when boarding the plane and a high level of personal service, usually being addressed by my name for the personal touch. From my choice of onboard wines and food I will place my order personally with a crew member and will have pleasant interaction with the cabin crew during the course of my flight. On arrival, if needed, there will be ground crew to help me get to my final destination. The personal touch for a premium service – expectations met!

Again, with automation increasing there is a split appearing between high automation and a certain standard of experience OR there is the premium service which is very individualised with multiple human touchpoints from people who predict your needs and fulfil them before being asked.

Both of these examples show a disappearing “average” experience in the centre and instead producing automated tasks and functions or an intensely personal experience.

So what does this mean for HR and People Leaders?

Engage with your businesses experts

In my view, HR is in the best position to co-ordinate your business into looking forward to predict the impact of the future of work and build the plan to prepare for this, co-ordinating and using the expertise around you:

  • MARKETING – What are the consumer behaviour trends and what is your sector saying about upcoming innovation?
  • SALES/COMMERCIAL – What is the predicted revenue change in the foreseeable future based on these trends and their experience?
  • FINANCE – What are the shareholder expectations, the predicted profit and cashflow demands?
  • CEO/BOARD – What is the future business positioning strategy compared to competitors?

By combining these elements, a future workforce plan can be produced based on these factors. Now overlay the latest thought leadership in people and communication technology. What are the jobs that can be automated? What are the critical customer experience roles? Try to put all employee functions into one box or the other if possible. Then act upon these groupings in different ways by developing your future people plan for your organisation:

  • RESOURCING – What are the critical future roles to develop pipeline and/or enhance your selection processes?
  • LEARNING – Focus budget on non-automated future roles and upskilling around human behaviour
  • REWARD – Review recognition and reward schemes to ensure the right future behaviours are rewarded now
  • COMMS – What stages are needed in the story you need to tell your people as they go through this major transformation
  • HR TEAM – With the rise of technology, data usage and analytics, what skills do you need in your team and therefore what transformation does HR need to undergo to prepare for this.

In summary, use your business experts to predict your unique future business in the world of automation and intense customer experience. Those who do this well will win in the cognitive technology era.