HR and the future of work


November 18th, 2016

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Last week Peter Cheese, CEO of the CIPD, opened the CIPD’s annual conference in Manchester by arguing that HR professionals “have the opportunity to not only shape the future world of work, but also to ensure that the future of work is human.” I’m sure all HR professionals would agree with his sentiment, when faced with predictions from technology experts that between 35% and 50% of jobs will be automated in the next 20 years. Many researchers, including ourselves,  ( argue trends such as automation mean we will soon be faced with an hourglass labour market, requiring HR to work very differently to now, and to offer different services to the top highly skilled part of the hourglass compared to the bottom low skilled part. With such fundamental shifts just around the corner, I expect we all agree shaping the future of world of work should be a top priority.

However I expect HR professionals would also agree there is a long list of things that can get in the way. Some are still struggling with too much transactional work, inadequate IT systems, and managers who just want HR to do their job for them – in our 2016 Management Agenda 70% of HR managers agreed being overwhelmed by transactional work was a barrier to business partnering, and 45% agreed lack of buy-in beyond HR was another barrier. Many are engaged in longer-term strategic projects that build capabilities for the near future, but which may not necessarily be needed in a changed world of work. All are grappling with the challenges of economic uncertainty, the ongoing demand for doing more with less, and the implications of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump.

With such long lists of things to do it’s not surprising HR professionals, like all leaders and managers, struggle to create head space to ponder the future of work and its implications for their organisation. I also wonder whether we sometimes hide behind our long lists of things to do, as shaping the future of work requires HR professionals to be at the top of their game. For example it requires HR leaders and managers:

  • To have a voice with senior stakeholders, so they can initiate debates and be listened to during those debates
  • To have views on the strategic implications of the changing nature of work
  • To have opinions about what their organisation should be doing to prepare for a different world of work, both today and in the future
  • To be comfortable with the inevitable ambiguities about the future of work
  • To manage their anxiety about their own future – after all if 50% of the workforce is automated what does that mean for HR itself?

We know from our work with HR leaders and managers that these capabilities are often at the edge (or sometimes beyond) their comfort zone. It seems that HR is still struggling to inspire and influence their senior stakeholders about strategic challenges, particularly with something as fundamental and complex as the changing nature of work.

It may be a struggle, but also what an incredible opportunity – to engage in the strategic conversations and to demonstrate the leading edge thinking that CEOS so often ask of HR.

If it feels too much of a challenge have a look at our new HR Leaders Programme, which is designed to give HR leaders the skills and confidence to face strategic challenges, including the implications of the future of work.