Making a successful transition to a tech-enabled workforce could be the biggest strategic challenge businesses face in the coming years
With fears that automation could decimate the jobs market, employers need to carefully implement the shift to a human-AI hybrid workforce. Sam Forsdick finds out what the future workplace could look like from HR company boss Stuart Heatley
From factories equipped with robot technicians and autonomous vehicles to artificial intelligence bots carrying out customer service and administrative tasks, the Fourth Industrial Revolution can appear bleak for job prospects.
Advancements in technology are promising to revolutionise the way we work but it doesn’t have to spell the end for human workers.
Perhaps there could be a way for people to stand alongside AI in a hybrid workforce – but only if the inevitable changes are managed effectively by employers.
“It isn’t about machines taking over, it’s about creating a digital-ready workplace that is able to deliver to customers and evolve,” claims Stuart Heatley, sales and marketing director at Capita People Solutions.
In a survey of 2,000 UK staff, the business procurement company found that 51% would leave their organisations if it didn’t manage the transition to a human-AI hybrid workforce properly.
What is a human-AI hybrid workforce?
The hybrid human-AI workforce refers to the new working dynamic that will evolve as the workplace becomes fully digitised and businesses take advantage of new technologies brought about by Industry 4.0.
Employees will increasingly be required to work alongside robots, automated machinery and AI, with many fearing the technology could eventually replace them.
And not without good reason, either, with a 2017 report by McKinsey Global Institute estimating 800 million jobs – one-fifth of the global workforce, affecting 800 jobs in 46 countries – could be replaced by robots by 2030.
However, companies are also concerned about the rapid rate of change, with 67% of business leaders fearing their organisations will become irrelevant if they fail to make the move to a hybrid workforce.
Results from Capita reveal that 72% see the “human-to-hybrid” transition as their most important priority.
Mr Heatley adds: “There’s a realisation that change is imminent – 93% of those that we spoke to know they need to take action, but the main driver to do it thus far has been cost savings.
“It’s the wrong reason to do it in isolation.”
Why businesses need to make the move to a hybrid workforce
It’s been claimed that a Fortune 500 company could save over $4m (£3.1m) a year through the adoption of automation and AI.
But, Mr Heatley believes that businesses should be focusing on the other advantages technology could provide.
“I think a lot of businesses understand the need to embrace technology,” he says.
“But there has been an element of introducing tech to save money, rather than making the workforce more adaptable and building a more successful business.
“My initial reaction to the displacement of the workforce through automation is that we have a growing global population and a decline in the roles that humans will play.
“Although there is going to be a loss of 70 million roles through this change, we found that, at the same time, there will be 133 million new roles created as a result.”
This optimistic outlook is not shared by everyone, with a University of Oxford paper claiming that 47% of US workers were at risk of losing their jobs to “computerisation”.
However, Mr Heatley believes that technology will also create “new ways of working”.
Skills will become more important during digital age
These new working methods will require workers to adopt new skills in order to future-proof their employability, according to Mr Heatley.
He says: “Thought leadership is focused on what you need to do from a technology perspective, but there are other considerations around getting the right workforce in place to embrace the new tech – both now and in the future.
“Some of the skills that will still be needed are leadership – in order to take a vision from beginning to end – strategy and innovation.”
More practical skills, such as development, governance and sales, will also give employees an advantage over machines.
Speaking about the changing role of sales, Mr Heatley adds: “Ultimately, sales will become bots talking to bots, but I still think there’s a place for human interaction in sales and building relationships.
“A lot of sales deals are still done people-to-people – where the customer is a human being there will always be room for salespeople.”
Companies need to identify the need for digital re-skilling within the workforce and this change will come from two places, according to Mr Heatley.
He says: “People-friendly businesses will see it as the right thing to do and harder businesses will want to do it anyway for fear of incurring significant costs of a workforce that will lose relevance.
“Individuals are already using technology to teach themselves, whether from YouTube or digital skills.
“People will want to take control of their career and the skills they have.”
Will a human-AI hybrid workforce give employees more free time?
Many employees will be hoping that new technology will be a liberating force for workers.
The Trade Union Council (TUC ) argues that advances in technology, such as AI and automation, would enable a four-day working week, which could help employee morale, productivity, the environment and even the gender pay gap.
But, Mr Heatley doesn’t think this is a guarantee.
“The trend up until now is that, as technology has developed, we’ve worked harder and longer hours,” he says.
“I think the four-day work week is dependent on how businesses are built – they need to have the right balance between technology and resources.
“If they use technology to employ fewer people, it could cause issues.”
Although employees may not find themselves working fewer hours for the same pay, technology could improve the work-life balance.
Mr Heatley says: “My generation was probably used to working hard to get the job done and often got the balance wrong.
“Millennials and Gen Z, who are now entering the workforce, want different things from their work life.
“Rather than living to work, it’s now work to live.
“Technology isn’t the main driver here but it is part of a change that will bring a better balance between work and life and I think it’s a change that’s already happening.”