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Will automation technology make human resources obsolete?

Over the past year, automation has been one of the most divisive subjects across many industries. For business leaders and shareholders, efficiencies mean growing profits and increasing dividends, but for many employees the fear of being replaced by a machine is very real.

This sentiment is more than just a far-off fiction: it is a reality already faced by millions of workers worldwide, with industries as diverse as food and beverage and manufacturing already feeling the impact. In 2020, human assembly lines are becoming a thing of the past; fleets of driverless cars promise to fix our congestion woes; and McDonalds has rolled out automated ordering kiosks.

Manual labour is not the only skillset that is being replaced – according to a recent report, more than one million knowledge-based jobs will be lost to automation in 2020. Artificial intelligence will increasingly play a significant role in decision-making, with implications for employees and leaders at all levels.

The question on the tip of everyone’s tongue is: will machines really replace people in the workplace of the future? If so, what will become of the people? Will they find themselves in the unemployment queue, or instead have renewed bandwidth to focus on bigger and better things?

If you work in human resources, it is hard to envisage a time when things might be 100% run by software. In truth, the partnership between HR and technology is nothing new. From simple tasks like paperless onboarding, to Linkedin’s sophisticated recruiting features, HR professionals have long been reaping the rewards of automation.

Ultimately, though, a great HR professional needs more than just a solid foundation of technology to provide the support, guidance and grounding a business needs. Their ability to combine their intimate knowledge of legislation, ethics and employees’ personal situations is key to their success. Empathy is vital.

Which raises the ultimate question: will technology ever make HR departments obsolete? According to Andrew Northcott, CEO of Roubler, the answer is a resounding “no”.

“The most successful HR departments have a deep understanding of their staff and the workplace they operate within, and use this to create efficient, technology-enabled processes that help people do their jobs more effectively,” Andrew explained.

“Having great systems and processes in place is only one piece of the puzzle – knowing your people and ensuring the entire HR department is focused on supporting them, regardless of whether the issue is administrative or not, is what counts.”

This certainly defines the situation in 2020 – but we are living in an era when computer processing speed is doubling roughly every 18 months. If that trend applies not just to computer hardware, but also software and machine learning, then surely there will come a time when HR technology will be capable of thinking and acting in the same way as humans themselves?

“I do see a time, very soon, when all administrative and transaction-based procedures will be fully automated. To me, this is a huge plus for human resources teams, as it will help them focus their efforts on more tangible outcomes for staff and the business as a whole,” Andrew said.

“Too often, human resources is under pressure to focus on what’s urgent, rather than spending time on what may truly be important for a business. Recruiting new staff and communicating with existing ones can leave very little time to focus on the bigger picture and enable the business to truly succeed.

“Building a positive working environment, upskilling employees, developing better leaders: all of these things take time, and are often pushed aside in favour of menial tasks. That’s the beauty of automation: it gives HR professionals the space and time to focus on creating a thriving workforce.”

So, if the world is on the cusp of introducing full workforce automation across all administrative aspects of workforce management, then how can we be sure this won’t introduce a new set of problems arising from handing these tasks over to machines?

“It’s essential to provide the entire team with adequate training to make sure everyone is comfortable with the new systems and processes, so you do not alienate staff. This is particularly true for team members who are not particularly comfortable with technology and are most at risk of becoming disengaged and frustrated,” Andrew said.

“It’s also important to find the right software, to help you deal with exceptions to all the rules and ensure everyone’s unique circumstances can be taken into account. This helps ensure the human side of human resources is always first and foremost, and will help make life at work easier, more efficient and more effective for everyone.”

Ultimately, then, we are standing on the edge of a tomorrow in which we will see increasing numbers of tasks taken off our to-do lists for good. Technology will increasingly lend an (artificial) helping hand and help add more of a human touch back into the workplace.

Fleur Murphy
Fleur Murphy is a strategic thinker and marketing leader with a passion for all things SaaS. With her drive to build strong brands and genuine desire to create value for customers, Fleur has helped software companies across Australia, the USA, UK and Asia achieve tangible results from their marketing activities. At Roubler, Fleur focuses on strategies to help shift-based workforces get the most out of their business technology.
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