But that means avoiding ‘fads and fashions’ regarding new technology, CIPD Annual Conference delegates are told

HR professionals must help their businesses look beyond “fads or fashions” around the future of work, and ensure employees’ voices are heard in a world of increased automation and volatility, according to an expert panel at the CIPD Annual Conference.

In a session that addressed some of the key changes that will reshape HR roles – and organisations – in the years ahead, delegates heard pleas to think critically about whether shifts are really in organisations’ best long-term interests, and to consider those who become disenfranchised as technology changes the skills mix.

“This issue is absolutely critical,” said Jo Swinson, the former secretary of state for employment relations, who chaired the session in Manchester and sketched an outline of a “fourth industrial revolution” where jobs could increasingly be displaced by disruptive new technologies.

“We’ve had previous technological advances and we’ve always found new jobs [as a result], but the pace of change now is very significant,” said Swinson. “The nature of the employment relationship itself is now being impacted by technology, and that has a huge impact on the HR profession.”

It creates a requirement for HR professionals to scrutinise the shift towards more precarious work and fewer employees, said Richard MacKinnon, insight director at the Future Work Centre: “I’d ask HR professionals not to follow assumptions that are made about the future of work. Ask to see the evidence, otherwise you end up falling for fads and fashions. And when you adopt a new technology or solution, be clear about the problem you’re trying to solve in the first place.”

Valerie Todd, talent and resources director at Crossrail, said there was indisputably a growth in human-free work environments, citing driverless trains and automated customer service centres. “HR professionals need to make sure no one is left behind, by creating inclusive working environments,” she said. “If ever there was a time to have an HR leader at the boardroom table helping to drive strategy, it’s now.”

Neil Carberry, director of people and skills at the CBI, added: “We’ll be more technologically enabled in the future, but we’ll also need to be more inclusive and productive. That means HR professionals will need to get close to leaders… the sort of leaders who look along the line and sponsor change. We need to work with them to challenge changes that are fashions or fads.”

Employees must be seen as key stakeholders in the future of work, suggested Laura Harrison, the CIPD’s people and strategy director. That means moving from a model where “the business decides what it wants and HR delivers it” to one where HR helps balance the needs of different groups and makes reasoned decisions. It might mean new HR roles, she said; for example, talent acquisition in the future might look very different to traditional recruitment, given a greater proportion of the workforce will be contractors or self-employed individuals.

“Our role as HR people is to be experts on the future of work,” said Harrison. “Our expertise comes through our understanding of human beings – how they interact with each other, how they interact with incentives, how they are motivated. Our businesses will compete through agility and speed of adaptation, so our ability to support that is critical.”

The panel also discussed employers’ duty of care to those who could lose their jobs, or have their career trajectories curtailed, as new technology came in. “We have this sense that people own their own careers, and we [as employers] don’t have any responsibility for them,” said Harrison. “But that puts individuals in positions of greater responsibility, which can lead you into a downward spiral. The idea that we are prepared to invest in people’s learning, development and employability should become part of a business’s licence to operate. We can’t afford to have people left behind.”

There was general agreement that better links between employers and the education system were long overdue. But Todd said this had historically proved difficult, and that given most children were deciding their future career path at a very young age, targeting primary schools could be the most effective route.

Meanwhile, there were still issues with further and higher education, not least what Harrison characterised as the “outdated” idea that learning stops when you leave school.

“Universities are developing degree programmes that suit universities,” added Todd. “When young people come to work, they’re not job-ready, particularly in engineering roles, and we have to spend a lot of time re-educating them.”