‘It’s not machines taking your job – it’s machines making your job more interesting’

The robots aren’t coming – they’re already here. Professional services firm Deloitte has released a report examining how technology has affected jobs over the last 150 years. But, rather than transforming the human race into unemployed Luddites, machines have helped create more work in new sectors. People Management spoke to Ian Stewart, chief economist at Deloitte and co-author of the report, to find out what this means for HR.

Why is technology in the workplace such a talking point?

I think the debate is perennial. There has always been anxiety about how technology will affect jobs and, in particular, how machines will substitute human labour. One of the arguments that I hear a lot is that it’s different this time. I wouldn’t necessarily agree with that. There’s never been a time in the past 50 years where people didn’t believe technology was transformational.

Most discussions about technology in the workplace focus on automation. Are we thinking too narrowly about the impact technology will have on us?

Probably. There’s this sci-fi, apocalyptic image of robots taking over. I think much of what happens is more prosaic and less dramatic. It’s not machines coming along and taking your job. It’s machines coming along and making your job easier and more interesting.

Why is automation often viewed so negatively?

I think it’s partly because we’re primed as humans to watch out for threats and we’re not very good at judging objective risk. For example, people tend to fear flying in an airplane more than getting in a car, yet the latter is riskier. Because we can see how technology can sometimes dramatically change jobs, we tend to focus on that element.

Your report described the growth of technology as happening in an "unpredictable, haphazard fashion". How will this affect HR professionals?

You need to be alive to how technology is going to change the world. You’ve also got to be aware that many prognostications made about technology are wrong. There are many more dead ends in technological development than there are huge successes. There’s a tendency for people to see technology having dramatic effects whereas a lot of them are everyday effects. We’re not driving around in hover cars. Instead, we’ve got mobile phones with cameras, which nobody expected.

One of the big messages coming out of our report is that there’s going to be more movement of labour within the economy. If you’re an HR person, you have to think about what skills will enable people to prosper in that environment.

What skills will be important in the future?

Machines will probably continue to find it impossible to perform the same skills they find it impossible to perform now, such as caring skills or creativity. One challenge for HR professionals is to figure out ways of measuring those skills. They can easily compare university degrees to A-Levels. It’s much harder to compare people’s leadership abilities, degree of empathy or their ability to communicate.