What will job disintegration mean for HR?

Finally, after much scaremongering and over-hype we are coming to the collective realisation that AI, robotics and other forms of automation are unlikely to replace entire jobs in the near future. There are of course some exceptions such as automated vehicles already replacing human drivers, but for the most, the reality is these technologies will and are already replacing specific tasks (disintegration) which have a leaning towards being mundane, repetitive and logical in nature. In time, machine learning technologies will increasingly gain the ability to perform more non-logical and increased intellectual activities, however, they are likely to still be singular outcomes and remain specific tasks.

Let’s extrapolate this current trend – as we progress down this track of removing tasks from existing human jobs and replacing full-time jobs with alternative contingent staffing options, the essence of traditional work, jobs, career growth, tenure, security and social protections that comes with full-time jobs is also disrupted. This is triggering a silent transformation in our corporations, but also significant societal uneasiness. As people realise the benefits inherent in traditional full-time jobs are gone, such as the ability to get a mortgage, have contributions made towards their superannuation or simply have a sense of stability, the nature of the employee-employer relationship will fundamentally change. As HR professionals and business leaders, we must realise the spirit of some important HR tenets, such as loyalty and engagement are no longer valid for all – these are features associated with full-time employment.

“As people realise the benefits inherent in traditional full-time jobs are gone,  the nature of the employee-employer relationship will fundamentally change”

In Australia, the current level of contingent, contract, part-time or gig-type roles is growing rapidly. Currently, about 25% of the labour force fall into one of these categories. Recent data from the ABS indicates 80% of new jobs created in the last 12 months are part-time. In a McKinsey report, it’s apparent that this trend is on the rise globally with an estimated 30% of US and European workers engaged in some form of independent work. From an attraction and recruitment perspective, HR functions are likely to find it increasingly challenging to hire resources into contingent roles who bring the same level of affinity as full-time resources. HR is more likely to fill contingent roles with people who are choosy, more demanding, behave like customers and are continually looking out for a better gig. For contingent jobs with higher skills requirements, this could be even more challenging. The impact on the organisational ethos and culture can be significant.

Strategically, HR and business leaders must consider how to best manage their organisations under these emerging realities. Some ideas to consider are:

  • Focusing on specific leadership capability for managers and supervisors who support diverse employee-type teams. Particularly effective management of outcomes inherent in tasks performed by many different people and robots, in different locations, different time-zones, inconsistent availability and with different expectations.
  • HR should investigate the options to consolidate tasks from different jobs into new full-time roles. As an example, tasks done by an HR recruiter and tasks from a Marketing lead could be combined to form a new Social Recruiter job.
  • Contingent jobs are encouraging a return to ‘specialisation’. Historically specialists have a high need for autonomy and responsibility and what work which allows them to develop their creativity. Organisations must look to develop an operating structure which supports this need if they want to remain an attractive contingent employer.
  • Policy, procedure, reporting line, responsibilities are great people control mechanisms, but are not well received by contingent labour, who tend to dismiss hierarchy and dislike bureaucracy. The aim is to find a happy medium which supports the entire workforce without creating a ‘them vs us’ culture.

“HR is more likely to fill contingent roles with people who are choosy, more demanding, behave like customers and are continually looking out for a better gig”

  • Contingent workers are rapidly engaging with online gig platforms such as Airtasker and Upwork to help manage their multiple jobs, time, payments and historical records. Most core HRMS systems are not well geared to interact and share data with these platforms. Organisations should consider technical enhancements to support this.
  • Contingent workers don’t require or want typical HR interventions such as performance management and reviews thrust upon them, however basic feedback such as a ‘star rating’ (think Uber driver rating) should be considered as an alternative way of recognising individual contribution and providing feedback.
  • Agility and speedy decision making is critical in the contingent labour market. HR should assess process and hierarchical bottlenecks and look to automate as much as possible to allow insightful but quick decisions to be made.
  • HR should define new metrics e.g. what is an acceptable engagement score for a team of contingent resources, who have multiple jobs and don’t feel the need to be fully engaged.

The unbundling of jobs is a reality of our times, it’s something we need to embrace, but at the same time, we should be aware of the silent implications it has on effective people management in our organisations.

  • Automation, robotics and artificial intelligence are changing our work environments. Not as dramatically as the ‘Terminator’ pundits would have us believe, however they are impacting the traditional full-time job as tasks inherent in those jobs are being taken over by machines.
  • The disintegration of jobs requires HR leaders to redesign how work is carried out in their organisation. It’s far more complex than just shifting some work to a contingent labour force.
  • Organisations should have a socially responsible reason for existing and understand that alienating a part of society to the ‘gig economy’ is contributing to a larger societal problem. Those that create new, integrated workforces will be attractive to aspirant employees and ultimately reap the benefits of a stable workforce.

This article was written by Presence of IT's Rob Scott and first appeared in Inside HR.