Ask An Advisor: How Technology Is Changing the Workplace

As an HR Knowledge Advisor, I received an interesting question this week about what technologies will disrupt workplaces in the future. As the number of COVID-19-related questions decline, I was happy to see someone in HR ask such a futuristic strategic question. But a look at the future requires a look at the past. Technology was the prime enabler during the pandemic. It powered knowledge industries to meet goals as well as maintain productivity and worker’s jobs. Workers adapted and became frequent users of Zoom, Slack, screen sharing and more. What were previously face-to-face meetings now occurred online. Difficult conversations about employee performance, and even terminations, adopted a technology filter. Most workers became technologically comfortable, and our comfort level changed how we interacted with each other. Some aspects of in-person workforce culture were lost, but there were gains, too.

During the pandemic, technology helped employees continue their work. It allowed everyone to still earn a living. So, if we look ahead, will our technical comfort make future workforce technologies easier to adopt? Will the technology changes be an enabler for an existing workforce? Or will technology be a disruptor because automation will eliminate large swaths of jobs?

Some experts believe the next wave of technology automation will follow the previous cycles where certain jobs will disappear, but new ones will be added. The fields of office support, food service, repetitive manual production and house building will face automation. A recent SHRM article, Technology and the Future of Work: Which Way Will We Go?, asserted that unlike previous changes in technology automatization, the transition is happening much faster; machines are replacing human judgment and thought, as opposed to just repetitive tasks or manual labor, and the COVID-19 pandemic instantly highlighted how lessening human contact slows down transmission of the virus.

Despite such gloom over the thought of many jobs becoming automated, some experts are optimistic. Benjamin Hunnicutt is among a group of experts called “post-workists,” who believe the economy is shifting from one based on money to one based on time. According to SHRM’s article, while people will work fewer hours because of automation, they won't need to work as much because they won't need as much money. "The coin needed to buy things in this experience economy will increasingly be time," Hunnicutt said. "We'll be less and less dependent on money."

Whether that is true is hard to tell. Over the last 70 years, technology reduced mundane work and home tasks, but workers are still overwhelmed with too much to do.

One factor is certain. As automation moves ahead, HR’s role will be pivotal to retraining displaced workers into new roles and leading employers to build a better workforce. Now that makes me optimistic.

If you want to know more about technology’s impact on the future of work or have other HR questions, we’d love to help! Give us a call or send an e-mail. We’re also available by chat. It’s one of the most valued benefits of SHRM membership!

SHRM’s Ask an Advisor service is a member benefit through which SHRM’s HR Knowledge Advisors share guidance, real-life personal and professional experiences, and resources to assist members with their HR-related inquiries.

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