HR issues in the mind over machines debate

​Exploring the impact, changes and risks involved as the use of technology in the workplace increases.

Much has been written about the march of the machines, robotics and big data as the use of technology in the workplace increases. Often the focus is on the efficiencies gained and whether jobs will be lost as technology takes over. A recent report commissioned by ACAS by the Involvement and Participation Association, explores the wider employee relations issues which can sometimes be overlooked.

The report, Mind Over machines: New technology and employment relations is wide ranging but considers:

  • immediate impact as new technology is rolled out in an organisation
  • changes to working conditions, communications, the role of managers and management, and
  • well-being and the risks which, if not addressed, could mean adverse HR issues arising.

Why employers and technology businesses should be concerned

Those who attended the Simmons & Simmons TMT Conference this year benefitted from sessions on machine decision making, digital health, privacy and a look into the near future. HR skills are also likely to change as will employee relations and employee engagement issues. Management practices businesses will be left behind at their peril.

The success achieved in adopting new technology can be easily lost. Technology providers should be cognisant of the issues raised by this new Report and ready to address and support their customers as employers.

HR impacts

The Report addresses a wide range of factors:

  • Intensification - often technology seeks to achieve efficiencies (reduced headcount and removing laborious tasks). The remaining parts of an employee’s role which this may leave can result work increasing; this may not be taken into account when setting targets and objectives. An example is improving analytics using new technology; once the analysis is generated, the results must be actioned. The machine can produce the data quicker than a human but the follow up work increases and arrives more quickly. More work not less is the result. Do performance measures and capability processes account for this?

  • Less Autonomy and more isolation - dependant on the type of technology pros and cons arise - more remote/flexible working is a plus but technology allows increased monitoring or standardised processes: in some case reducing the range of experience and de-skilling. This may also reduce employees need, and eventually capability, to bring their judgment to bear. The Report cites the risk of “turning our own people into robots,” who lose “permission to think”.

Executives and their HR advisers must address (as one interviewee in the Report describes it) the “balance between mistrust and over reliance on technological systems” (Harry Armstrong of Nesta). How will training take this into account?

Technology can lead to reduced interaction between staff (described in the Report as less connectivity within workplaces), greater reliance on social media and email rather than face to face engagement - described by one employee of Jaguar Land Rover as “growing quietness”. One of the most thought provoking observations comes from Professor Veronica Hope-Hailey, “Because people have stopped communicating with each other, very quickly losing out are some of the cushioning effects of being in a workplace, where you would get this sense of a support mechanism from other people around you. And so there is an element of alienation going on I believe”.

Warning signs

It is not difficult to see how these consequences can result in a decrease in job satisfaction, employee engagement and an increase in stress. We have tended to look to robotics and machinery as a way of easing burdens, making the workplace safer; whilst this may mean less of a risk of physical harm, in the future workplace, managers and HR will need to be alert to mental health issues-which we know are on the increase. Feeling isolated, demoralised and unsupported can all increase the risks to mental health. Legal risks include higher attrition, constructive dismissal, personal injury and disability claims.

Mitigating these risks and HR interventions

The Report also describes the invasion by employers of the employees’ “psychological space” - thinking time, work life balance and what appears to be a more away from the “presenteeism” culture to an always available culture. The intrusiveness of technology as it is described. We already know that in France they have introduced provisions to give employees the “Right to disconnect”. Will others jurisdictions follow suit? Even if they don’t, employers should think about setting ground rules and actively managing employees so there is not an expectation or culture of being available and responsive at all times.

A binary approach is unlikely to be best and management skills are needed so as to be inclusive of different work styles. As the Report recognises, we have different ways of working, some are comfortable “blurring the lines” between work and home life (integrators) and others prefer a clear delineation (segmenters).

Wellbeing programmes are becoming the norm but equally, raising awareness about how to recognise depression, anxiety and how to respond (having difficult conversations) and use of Employee Assistance Programs are useful counter measures. Technology itself can help monitor individuals from wearable technology to online assessments, although great care must be taken to balance privacy and data protection issues.

Discrimination risk

Finally, the implementation and support put in place to introduce any new technology and the change to any management programme is a double edged sword, discrimination issues can arise. Don’t assume it will be older individuals in the workforce who will take longer to adapt to new technology. Anticipate disability issues to ensure appropriate modifications and adaptations are part of the design and roll out process for those with physical, learning, visual or other accommodation needs. Consultation and communication are essential requirements as are the training and implementation plans taking account of different learning styles.

These are all issues which must be considered when new technology is being introduced and before leaping to restructuring plans, after all, changing the work and restructuring roles will only be successful if technology and humans work together.

This document (and any information accessed through links in this document) is provided for information purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. Professional legal advice should be obtained before taking or refraining from any action as a result of the contents of this document.