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Is workforce management technology reducing our humanity?

Life in Australia is often associated with trips to the beach, outdoor culture, BBQs and unspoilt wilderness. But that doesn’t mean technology isn’t having a huge impact on our lives— not least our places of work, with the rise in the use of HR and payroll software, workforce management software, and more companies automating tasks that once took up valuable hours.

The idea that the vast majority of jobs might soon be automated is nothing new. People have been writing about this for as long as science fiction has been around, and thinking about it for even longer.

Automation is happening in every sector, but few have been met with the same concerns of HR and workforce management, jobs that traditionally involve human interactions and rely on social skills for success. But just because machines are doing more and more doesn’t mean these departments are becoming redundant. The reality is far from it.

On the face of it, the conversations involved in successfully managing shift workers and other staff may seem mundane and – thanks to payroll and HR software – unnecessary. But these interactions facilitate closer bonds between ourselves and those around us. If we have no reason to pick up the phone or head to the 17th floor because the company has been successful in their attempts at automating tasks, we are surely likely to miss out on asking colleagues how they are, offering congratulatory words, helping new arrivals settle in during onboarding or even forging plans for the team night out.

Or perhaps it’s not quite so simple.

“The biggest benefit of workforce management automation is being able to let a computer do what it does best, while people do what they do best – interact on a one-to-one human basis,” says Andrew Northcott, Roubler’s CEO, who’s understandably keen to see more firms adopt automation where appropriate. “Employees need managers on the floor to guide, support and train them – that’s something technology can’t do.”

A lot of workplace technology has just made work more accessible and flexible.

“Cloud technology and being able to get on the internet mid-flight to check your emails has certainly opened up more places to work. But there is a distinction between technology that enables work and technology that automates it. Workforce management technology is designed to reduce workloads by automating manual tasks. And if it doesn’t do that, it isn’t built correctly,” he continues.

The point being managers need to view their roles in the 21st Century as more pastoral. It’s true that they will more than likely still need to perform some administrative tasks – not everything can be automated with workforce management software or HR and payroll software, and not everything should. Nevertheless, thanks to the advancement of technology used within these departments time can now be better spent ensuring a harmonious environment. Which is arguably the most difficult thing to achieve because problems may not initially present themselves clearly. Then again, neither do solutions.

“Technology can be a great ally so automate spreadsheet and paper-based processes whenever you can – creating rosters, creating or approving timesheets, printing out payslips,” Northcott replies when asked what steps management should be taking to maximise time for face-to-face human interactions. “Anything that’s manual that requires you to sit at a desk on your own prevents you from having meaningful conversations with your team.

“Also prioritise team meetings, even if it’s just a huddle for 10 minutes in the morning once a week or at the start of a shift. You can also help managers get the most out of their one-to-one time by giving them a list of really specific questions they should ask employees to uncover challenges or achievements, rather than wasting time with a generic ‘What’s been going on for you’ conversation that often goes nowhere.”

What this means is that simply freeing up time to talk with colleagues, team members and staff isn’t really enough unless we are willing and ready to really make the most of that time. A well-managed department is only possible when questions – both difficult and easy – are being asked and answered, by and for people, in an effective way. Without that cemented within company culture, it’s impossible to identify and tackle any personal issues and professional problems staff may have, let alone actually solve them.

Words by Richard Trenchard.

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