The future of HR lies in machines working with us, not instead of us

By Ramanan Ramakrishna, - AnalysisEmployee experienceFuture Workplace

I recently read an interesting article in Forbes about the role of artificial intelligence (AI) in HR.

It argued that the future of HR lies in managing fully automated workers and leveraging AI to perform a variety of standard tasks.

Machine learning will sift through CVs and write job descriptions. Chatbots will answer questions from employees and reinforce learning. AI will schedule meetings and follow them up with minutes.

At the same time, the article did point out that AI will only ever augment human intelligence. I agree with this view and feel the emphasis on this should be much stronger.

For me what’s exciting is not the new technology that will empower HR – it’s working out how HR can encourage humans and machines to work together.

Emotional labor in a human-robotic workforce

The HR role is fundamentally human-centric. It’s all about dealing with people on a personal level: resolving disputes, building teams and dealing with issues of a personal nature like sickness or bereavement.

Psychologists have recently identified a new type of work which they call ‘emotional labor’. It involves managing feelings and making people feel welcome.

HR is pretty much all about emotional labor.

And this won’t change.

We will have more and more AI “colleagues” – the same article reports that at one in five employees will have an AI co-worker by 2022. But the burden of carrying out the emotional labor will stay with Human HR!

HR might even have to do more emotional labor in future than it does now. After all, we don’t actually know how working alongside AI will make people feel.

Collaborating with machines that can arrive at an answer much quicker without bringing emotions or bias into the mix might elevate stress and frustrate people. It might subconsciously force them to work more to try and match the 24/7 robotic capability.

This is all just conjecture. There isn’t any evidence that people have anything other than positive feelings about their future AI colleagues.

A survey from autumn 2017, for example, found that 88% of respondents would be comfortable working alongside intelligent machines, while a further 91% are comfortable with the prospect of managing them.

But the point still stands: as long as there are human workers there will be emotional labor. In future, HR will have to work out how to practice emotional labor in a digital workplace.

Redefining management in human terms

The article did make an excellent point that automating the administrative side of HR will free up time to do the meaningful emotional work.

I agree fully that employer references, contract production and scheduling meetings can be done by machines.

But I don’t subscribe to the notion that ‘AI is starting to take on tasks normally handled by mid-level managers’.

I think we need to start separating the idea of admin tasks from the rest of work.

The work of a manager is not admin: it’s leadership. The admin, up to now, has been a by-product. Even though managers do admin, it’s not a management task.

And when AI takes the admin away, a manager will be able to spend all of their time on leadership and strategy, which is managerial work.

Making space for the human touch

Finally, I think the article doesn’t stress sufficiently the value of human tasks in relation to the new and exciting technology.

Humans inherently do things that involve a level of subjectivity based on intuition and might not make perfect sense from an analytical manner. For this reason, it’s a risk to hand over too many HR tasks to machines.

Using machine learning to sift through CVs, for instance, may save time. But what about that individual whose CV doesn’t demonstrate the core skills that the machine is looking for in a direct manner but the overall CV provides a good indication of such a skill?

There are many examples of hugely successful CEOs who started their businesses with no experience and no proof of their skills.

This is the kind of unconventional talent that we might lose if we don’t have the human, instinctive factor involved in the recruitment process.

Using AI to stay human

I love technology, and I’m excited about the opportunities it will bring to our office and the way it will make our working lives easier.

But it’s going to require a lot of emotional labor to get people and machines to work together, and we’re going to have to change our definition of managerial work along the way.

And ultimately we have to remember that it’s a balance. As much as new technology is great, there are some tasks, which will always require a human.

In the future, we will see AI do more, but this doesn’t mean people will do any less. We will do things differently working alongside our AI “colleagues”.

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