How is technology changing the world of work?

Every day there’s another story about the power of technology and how it’s going to revolutionise our lives. When it comes to the world of work, the scaremongers among us like to predict that robots will replace us all one day. Given that there’s already enough doom and gloom going around these days, this article is going to focus on the potential benefits of technology in the workplace and what organisations can do to ensure that technology remains a help rather than a hindrance.

First, what do we mean by technology?

For the purposes of this article I am going to use technology as a loose term to encompass everything from simple automation (think manufacturing production line) to the more cutting edge artificial intelligence developments plucked straight out of science fiction. While you may disagree about the reality, theoretically at least the fundamental purpose of all technology is to make our lives better. Within the context of work, this equates to helping us be better at our jobs – surely that can only be a good thing? Given the consequences of the productivity puzzle discussed in my previous article, technology may prove the much-needed economic boost we have all been waiting for.

So is technology going to replace jobs or not?

My very first article for The HR Consultancy discussed the implications of an increasingly tight labour market, and now it appears that the long-anticipated leap in wages may finally be taking place. This means that hiring additional labour to meet your organisational needs is only going to get more and more expensive as time goes on. Whereas before labour was a cheap substitute for introducing costly technologies, as labour gets scarcer and therefore costlier technology increasingly becomes a more economically viable option.

Don’t panic though, this doesn’t mean that a robot is going to take your job! At this point in time, existing technology simply isn’t advanced enough to do everything a human can – artificial intelligence may be developing in leaps and bounds but we’re still nowhere near Ex Machina levels. Instead of large-scale job losses, technology is much more likely to change the workplace on a task-based approach. Using technology to complete mundane tasks would allow staff to focus on more complex tasks rather than getting bogged down by drudgework, with employers reaping the benefits through improved productivity. In this way, rather than replacing workers technology would be reshaping existing job roles as employees gain time to take on other responsibilities.

But what has HR got to do with any of this?

It would be easy to say that this is nothing to do with HR; the ‘H’ stands for human, not robot! However, with technology stretching further into the workplace every day it is within the HR remit to ensure it is not to the detriment of workers. Technology exists to make our lives better, but does that mean the lives of employers or employees? Perhaps HR expertise is needed to ensure that an employer’s goals for economic gain are balanced against workers needs for job satisfaction without one at the expense of the other. There is no reason that technology can’t do both.

We can’t predict the future, but we can take measures now to try to set ourselves up as much as possible to embrace it. Good people are and always will be an asset to any organisation, and even the most advanced robots of our dreams could never change that. Instead of viewing technology as a replacement for people and a way to cut staff costs, it should be viewed as an opportunity for economic growth. Developing a people-focused technology strategy which everyone can get on board with ensure smooth sailing as technology inevitably becomes an increasingly central part of the workplace.