A different kind of email policy

A mobile phone email inbox showing one new message

As someone who has been involved in policy work for a good while, I remember the days when creating an email policy was a big deal. It had the same level of focus that social media policies get today.  I’m sure that when workplaces first introduced desk phones we felt the need to tell people how to use them too. We created rules and processes.  Management guidance and lists of dos and don’ts. 

Eventually, these things become so part of the everyday (or even passé) that the need for a policy wanes.  I reckon there are plenty of email policies out there though, all the same.

Recently, someone in my Twitter timeline talked about the need for a different type of email policy – a healthy email policy.  

Email as a bad reputation.  We know that it can be a problem. Not the tool itself but how, and often when, it is used. There are many organisations where the email culture isn’t healthy at all. Competitive late night emailing. Expectation of immediate responses.  Meaningless out of office messages, because employees feel like they can never really switch off.  The passive aggressive cc.  The ‘confirming our discussion’ type.  And so on.

Of course, it’s not just unhealthy organisational habits, but personal ones too. We jump to the inbox ping, an ingrained Pavlovian response. Our emails are often in our pockets or on our smart watches, following us everywhere, quietly nagging us for a response.  And we do.

So just what could a healthy email policy look like? For some organisations it means banning emails ‘out of hours’ or automatically deleting emails when people are on holiday.  Both of these feel a little too much like treating employees like children who can’t manage their own workloads.  It also risks enforcing the idea that there is any such thing as a ‘normal’ working day.

Instead, a healthy email culture is one where someone does not feel like they have to respond immediately or be thought of as less committed or motivated. Where you can put an out of office on and mean it.  Where, if someone wants to work late at nights or weekend, they do so in a way that doesn’t role model unhealthy or unhelpful habits (just put them in your drafts folks and send them in the morning or let people know that it’s because you work flexibly).  It also means an email culture where sometimes we don’t send one at all and just get up and have a conversation instead. 

Do we need a healthy email policy?  In an ideal world – no. Or at least we shouldn’t, in an adult to adult working environment. Instead, we need to start with ourselves by creating our own healthy email habits – and challenging the unhealthy ones we see from our colleagues too, along the way.  Maybe what we need instead of yet another policy is a reminder that when it comes email (and indeed pretty much everything else) we need to work with both wellbeing and colleagues in mind. 

Flexible working for all?

The Labour party recently announced that should they return to government they would introduce flexible working from day one, with the intention that there would be a presumption for flexible working with all roles.   It’s hard to see how this could work in practice – but of course it all depends on what we actually mean by flexible working.

Talk of flexible working brings with it a range of assumptions and biases. Many people understand flexible working to mean working part time  or some form of reduced hours – very often for family reasons.  It is, regretfully, seen as omething of interest primarily to the mothers of young children. Within that somewhat limited definition it could be possible to have a legislative framework in which any full time job should be considered as suitable for working fewer hours.  The 37.5 hour working week is after all, a fairly arbitrary invention.

But flexible working is so much more than that.  All too often we look at it through the family friendly lens. This article from the Guardian illustrates that nicely.  Check out the accompanying stock image (also included at the top of this blog).  A woman in a business suit, baby on shoulder.  Flexible working isn’t something that mums want when they have a small child – but this is how it is often portrayed – both in the media and within organisations.

There are so many reasons people want to work flexibly. Some of these are practical; caring responsibilities, financial reasons (just consider the cost of commuting), disabilities, children.  Others are lifestyle or wellbeing choices.  Combining work with study or hobbies, the desire for greater life work balance.  None is ‘better’ or more important than others. 

Yes, women do the bulk of the childcare in our society, and broader care responsibilities too. That’s part of a bigger problem.  The solution isn’t to make it easier for women to get flexible working, but to make flexible working an accepted norm for everyone.  The 26 week wait to request flexible working is undoubtedly a barrier to flexibility.  The statutory framework could also be much improved, not least because it’s all too easy to reject a request on the flimsiest of grounds. Of course, in our internal policies we can always choose to do so much better than the minimum statutory requirements. 

But when it comes to flexible working the real issue (and barrier) however, is attitudes.

Too often, when it comes to flexible working, the answer is no,now what’s the question?

There is all too often a belief that flexible working will be exploited. That it’s an excuse for skiving.  That there’s nothing in it for the organisation.  That men don’t need it, and those that do are somehow weak or available for jokes.  That those who work flexibly are somehow less committed and motivated.

This is the stuff  that needs to change, perhaps more than the legislation itself.

Perhaps we can start with our stock images – and our own internal framing. Where’s your flexible working policy?  In with your employee benefits – or next to the maternity and adoption policy?

GDPR – 5 steps to take today

Wondering what all the GDPR fuss is about?  There is plenty of information out there – so here is our attempt to make it simple.  Here are the practical steps that you need to be taking today in order to be ready for the new regime in May.


1. Review your contracts of employment  

You probably have a standard contract of employment that contains a consent clause.  After 25th May, you won’t be able to rely on this clause.  Instead you will need to review your contract template and include a privacy notice which makes explicit what personal data you are collecting, why you need, what you’re going to do with it and how long you’re going to keep it. More on this below.


2. Train your people

You need to ensure that your employees know about the GDPR.  This is especially important for those who have data processing as part of their jobs.  They need to be aware of the changes and how they need to act differently after the new regulations come into force.  You also need to make sure your people are aware of the rules around reporting data breaches to the relevant authority within 72 hours. You may also need to inform the subject of the data breach in certain circumstances. So you can see why it’s important that your people understand this.


3. Issue a privacy notice and make it publicly available

As mentioned in point 1, this is an essential step for both employees and job applicants alike. Resist the temptation to make it one of those 94-page terms and conditions documents that we all mindlessly agree to for all kinds of internet services these days: the regulations are very clear that notices must be easily accessible and easy to understand, as well as free of charge. The ICO has helpful guidelines around privacy notices on their website here: 


4. Audit – and conduct and initial risk assessment

The precise details of this audit will depend on your business and what you do, however there are common principles.  For example, start by ensuring that you are only collecting the minimum amount of personal information that you need for your business.  Check all of your data storage: both physical and digital. Are they safe? Where are your biggest risks of data loss? Do you still need to keep data that way or can you change your processes? How do you get consent from your data subjects? Will it be sufficient for the GDPR? What Data Protection Impact Assessments do you need to carry out? Again, the ICO website has some helpful self-assessment tools to help you here.


5. Review the personal data you are currently holding – and have a big clear out

It is time to clear out the clutter!  Do you need it full stop?  If you do, do you need it stored in the same format? For example, could you scan physical data and store it electronically (more securely). Does your business rely on paperwork being taken off site? This could make it all the more important to move to digital storage.  Digital devices can be password protected, but once lost, pieces of paper cannot be secured.


Finally, review your HR policies and procedures.  This will include those that specifically reference data protection but will include others too that reference the processing of data such as your sickness absence and recruitment policies. And if you need any help with this – well, this is what we do.  We can help you review your existing policies, and we can provide up to date, GDPR compliant policies on data protection.  Contact us for more information on how we can help you further.

Time for a menopause policy?

We spend a lot of time doing policy work for our clients. A little while ago the question arose…. Should we have a policy on the menopause at work?


My immediate response, fuelled by a general dislike of having a policy for absolutely everything, was…. no. Why would we need one?


And then I educated myself a little bit more.


It’s an area that is getting increasing focus from government, trade unions and organisations. You can find a recent publication here.


Here is what I now know:

  • Women are working later in life than they did in the past.
  • If we take the typical age that women experience the menopause, over 4m could be working through this life transition in the UK.
  • For some women, the symptoms can be severe and debilitating. There’s various research, but around 10-15% of women experience very severe symptoms.
  • Symptoms vary – but many can impact upon work either practically or in terms of confidence.
  • At the same time, for many women, it’s hard to talk about their menopause in the workplace – especially to male and/or younger managers.
  • Some women find coping strategies. Others opt to hide their symptoms.
  • Women are concerned about how they will be perceived if they talk about it. Some research points to discrimination and inappropriate comments and banter (otherwise known has harassment) about the menopause.
  • More research pointed to the increased likelihood of negative reactions in male-dominated environments – making women even less likely to speak out.


We’ve seen the matter of the menopause in the employment tribunal too. The leading case involves a women being dismissed for performance, which she alleged was as a result of her menopause and associated health conditions. The dismissing (male) manager made no attempt to verify this with Occupational Health, and instead based his decision on the (non-severe) menopause experiences of his wife and HR advisor……. I’ll just leave that there.


On my commute today I saw a poll on Twitter, asking if women should get ‘menopause leave’. The evidence is clear that menopause is an experience that differs significantly from woman to woman. So a one stop shop piece of legislation or ‘right to request time off’ isn’t the answer.


Small changes are sometimes all that is needed. If you provide uniform, making sure it’s made of natural fibres, or providing more than normal so that women can change at work. Small adjustments to working hours or breaks for women who are experiencing sleep problems or fatigue. Ventilation, fans and access to cold drinking water or changing facilities.


Above all, like with most people stuff, it is about dialogue. Creating the conditions where conversations are safe, people feel like they can raise the difficult stuff and reach out for the support that they really need.


So, maybe it is time for a menopause policy – or at least some guidance to help employees and managers alike. We have recently written our first documents for clients – so if you need any help with thinking about how your approach the menopause where you work…. get in touch!

Conflict at work

Conflict happens in all organisations, to some degree or another. Wherever there are people, there are diverging views, approaches and thoughts and the workplace is no different. Whilst steps can be taken to prevent or minimise it, the chances are that it is something that every organisation will need to deal with at some point. This is why we have formal procedures.


We are often asked to help organisations deal with conflict, whether it is between two colleagues who have a personal disagreement that spills over into their work or between two Directors which can threaten the very future of the organisation.


When conflict arises, those within the situation fix their positions quickly : “this is what I think and this is what I want”. When strong emotion is involved, it is all too easy to see only one point of view: our own.  Our cognitive biases kick in.  We want to be right.  Often, those involved in the conflict seek support.  They talk to others, put their point of view.  They are seeking to have their positions and their feelings validated.  If this isn’t quickly addressed, the conflict can then spread, impacting other employees and even the organisation itself.


The challenge with the traditional grievance procedure is that effectively, one person ‘wins’.  The hearing manager has to make a formal finding.  They either agree, or they disagree.  Little room for middle ground.  This leaves one person feeling like they have lost.


Put all of these factors together and you have a toxic mess.  Relationships can be damaged to a point where they cannot be repaired.  The emotion lingers on long after the formal processes have been concluded.


We’d take mediation over a grievance procedure any day.  It is however not an easy option.  The parties to the conflict have to get in a room and deal with it.  They have to be prepared to say the tough stuff – directly to the other person.  Emotions often run high and it takes much longer than a grievance hearing will.  Going into mediation does require bravery.  It requires people to put aside their need to be vindicated for the possibility of a long term solution.


All HR people have to manage conflict at work. It is part of the job description.  After many years of doing so I have learned that there is no one best way of dealing with it.  Each situation needs to be managed according to its context and the needs of the individuals within it.  But there is one thing that I do know.  However you think best to approach it, do it quickly.  Don’t let conflict linger.  This is how it spreads, this is how it impacts upon other employees, and this is how it infects your organisation.


Adult to adult conversation is the key – as soon as the issue arises.

The Top 5 Business Risks of Social Media

I’m a social media evangelist. You’ll usually find me advocating its use to and for everyone from business leaders to small business to HR professionals. But for all its benefits, social media is not completely without risk for the organisation. We’ve all heard the horror stories – in fact when I speak about it, I often share some of my favourites. So rather than another piece in praise of the virtues of social media, here are the top five social media risks for business…. and what you can do about them.

1. Confidentiality. All employees have an implied duty of confidentiality. It exists specifically in most standard contracts of employment too. Breaches via social media might be deliberate, they might be accidental – even the White House is apparently not immune to the accidental share. Passwords can be changed quickly though. Staff can mention clients who don’t want to be talked about. In any of these situations, disciplinary action may result. Preventing breaches is all about communication and training. Something I’ll be saying often in this blog post.

2. Bullying and harassment. Inappropriate comments, so-called ‘banter’, unwanted or inappropriate messages have been part of the workplace since, well, forever. But the difference when it takes place in the social world is its 24/7 possibility. Social media never sleeps. Often, the cases that find their way into the Employment Tribunal system involve bulling and harassment. Policies and training should make it very clear that social media activity ‘in the course of employment’ doesn’t just mean during the 9-5. In cyberspace, everything is transparent. Everything is relevant. Even on Facebook.

3. Inappropriate material. Or, as we like to say in many an HR policy, “bringing the company into disrepute”. Employees identifiable as working for their employer, posting dubious opinions, being discriminatory or even sharing pornographic images (and yes, I have dealt with this….). You can’t stop employees doing inappropriate things. If you could, HR would probably have much less to do. But you can have a clear, robust policy, and act accordingly.

4. Contacts. In the old days, sales people used to have contacts lists. Remember the desk bound Rolodex? The challenge back then was to stop anyone leaving business getting near the photocopier or the fax machine. Today, it is not quite as easy. You can incorporate terms into a contract about ownership of a social media account and its connections or go down the restrictive covenant route. I even know of someone who was required to delete their LinkedIn contacts one by one. I’d suggest this is largely futile. You can’t un-know someone – in real life or the social world. Better to make sure that that contact information is somewhere else like a CRM database than try to prevent the unpreventable.

5. Time wasting. It isn’t difficult to waste time on social media – we’ve all gone off down rabbit holes from time to time (cat videos anyone?). But that issue is much bigger than social media. Employees can waste time in all sorts of ways from the extended lunch break to simply wandering around the office. Monitoring social media usage is permissible – just make it clear that you are going to do it. But this isn’t really about social media. It’s about employee engagement. It’s no more or less a management problem than people taking too many cigarette breaks (something anyone who has their HR stripes has dealt with on numerous occasions). So if find your employees are using social media to excess, maybe don’t start by running a usage report and reaching for the “block” button, but by asking yourself why…

When it comes to addressing these risks, there are plenty of things you can do. Have, and communicate, an effective social media policy. Train your employees on using social media professionally and appropriately. Tell them what you consider acceptable, and what you do not. Make sure your company’s culture is the best it can be. The risks I’ve outlined above are very real – but they can be managed. That way, we can ensure that we reap the rewards of social media’s virtues too.

Of course, you could also attend one of my masterclasses on social media and employment law too. Self-promotion over. Kind of…!

Digital – the new HR space?

Tim writes…

Last week I attended a great event called ‘Our Digital Future’ run by the Liverpool City Region Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP). The aim of the day was to bring together people working in the Digital and Creative sectors to discuss the skills and business support that are needed to enable those businesses to grow and thrive. We had some excellent keynote speakers and some fascinating table discussions, facilitated by the Liverpool Girl Geeks.

In my last role, I was both Head of People and Head of IT. From the outside these two may look like strange bedfellows and, frankly, sometimes, this was true. Managing a complex employee relations issue one minute and attempting to negotiate a national network upgrade the next was always an interesting switch to make – but the disciplines have more in common than you might first think.

The digital skills gap is becoming an increasing problem and HR needs to get involved. Automation, ever-increasing social and digital technology, AI, augmented reality…. all coming to a workplace near you in ever increasing amounts. A recent Government report said that 90% of jobs require already digital skills to some degree and concludes that the digital skills gap is costing the UK economy £63 billion a year in lost GDP. Whilst some organisations are already thinking about this stuff, many are not. But those that aren’t could soon find themselves left behind. Permanently. Disruption is probably one of those annoyingly overused words in the modern business world. But digital disruption is happening to all sorts of business models and will continue to happen. No organisations and no business sectors are immune from its challenges and opportunities.

Dan Rubel from Shop Direct spoke on the day. He talked about their evolution from the catalogue-driven Littlewoods organisation to now, where they see themselves being as much of a tech business as a retail business. A mindset many organistations need to adopt – and HR too. As Dan said, ‘underpinning our digital success is our people’.

It was going round and round in my head that this is our space and it is time for HR to step up – and, in some cases, to catch up. We can’t just be the people people any more. We need to be the people people who can also do tech. In the past, the tech side of a HR role probably amounted to advising what the Acceptable Email and Computer Systems Use Policy ought to say about discipline (we do love a snappy policy title in HR don’t you know). But now we need to be thinking about the impact of technology and digital on our businesses. Right now and in the future. How is it going to change our business, our sector, our marketplace? Will our employees have the skills to be able to help change the model? If not – what are we going to do about it?

For HR professionals, it starts with you, now. This is a big opportunity. Get the skills. Understand the landscape. And then help others at your workplace to do the same. Your employer and your colleagues will be indebted to you and it will have a lot greater organisational impact than the Email Policy, I promise you.

It’s hang back or get ahead time.

Facilitation and me

Image: The Facilitation Shindig participants (Image from Julie Drybrough)
The Facilitation Shindig participants (Image from Julie Drybrough)

Tim writes…

Last week, I attended the inaugural Facilitation Shindig, run by the fabulous Julie Drybrough (in the group pic above, you can spot her at the right end of the front row).

Image: List of backgrounds I put together at the Facilitation ShindigIt was a get-together of a whole range of folks who get involved in facilitation in the workplace, in some form or another.  As we went around the room introducing ourselves, it seemed to me we fell into a number of different backgrounds. I tried to capture them just out of interest and summarised them as in the image to the left (the folk who were there may disagree with my categorisations – it was just an off the cuff thing!).

We kicked off the session with introductions and as part of our check-in, Julie posed the question: what is important to you when you facilitate? I realised that, for me, the answer is really quite simple (but, as is ever the case, quite complicated to achieve!): it is being useful to the people in the room and – as far as you can – making sure stuff happens afterwards. At the very least, you can show people that there can be a change from what was before.

When people get together in a room, there will usually be a compelling reason for them to do so (if there isn’t, you should probably start by asking what the value of you all getting together is!). Maybe there is a need to create something together, build a team or new relationships or to fix something that has gone wrong.

Image: I imagine we have all been to conferences and events that never leave the room.  By that I mean that the content is interesting, thought-provoking, even enjoyable, but follow-up action never happens and ultimately in hindsight it was just a day out of the usual routine.  Even with the best of intentions or the healthiest of budgets, nothing changed – or even if it did, that thing the people came together for isn’t sustained.  Quickly, practice reverts to what it was before.

As an example, I was talking to a friend who works in HR recently. They told me a (familiar) story about a company that had invested a whole heap of time, energy and money in a leadership development programme.  You know the kind of thing: off-site days in fancy hotels, expensive facilitators and coaches, involving every single manager in a global organisation. But the fancy hotel was nothing like the workplace (who’d have thought it?). There wasn’t enough space given for reflection or for identifying actions – the expensive facilitators delivered their off-the-shelf stuff off their shelves.  But there was no transfer back to the day job and no changes of any lasting significance were made.

So, what is important to me about facilitation is the doing after the day.  Making that event leave the room, making it meaningful, making a difference: not just on the day itself, not just for the smiles on the happy sheets but afterwards – when it really counts. The Facilitation Shindig did that for me and I hope I do it in the events I facilitate.

The key to great HR policies

Wait: great HR policies?

Yes, there really are such things.

You are probably more used to long, boring, bureaucratic and legally-worded ones with lots of ‘for the avoidance of doubt’s and ‘up to and including’. You may have even had to sign something to say you’ve read and understood a document which makes the 90-odd pages of Apple’s terms and conditions look like a “Baby’s First Words” chewable book.

Believe it or not, it doesn’t have to be like that.

Your employment policies are more than the sum of their parts. They are more than just a document that someone signs (and rarely reads) when they start in your organisation. They are also a window into your culture. They are how you talk to the people that work for you.

I once accepted a job and the HR department I was joining sent me a huge pile of policies to read and sign in the post along with my contract of employment. They were formal, shouty and with plenty of detail about how they reserved the right to fire me for all sorts of potential transgressions. A nice “welcome to the company” and good first impression they were not.

Instead, when carefully and thoughtfully written, employment policies can be empowering.

They can be short and simple.
They can be worded in plain English.
They can allow for discretion.
They can give a good first impression.
They don’t have to cover every eventuality.
They don’t have to have all the answers.
They don’t have to be mood hoovers.
They don’t have to be formal and wordy.

If you want great HR policies, then here are my top tips:

  • Keep them short and to the point
  • Think about the language you use – straightforward, plain English is just fine (and in fact is much better!)
  • Consider whether you even need one at all – many companies have far too many separate policies
  • Follow the ACAS code for discipline and grievance – you don’t need to do any more than this to be compliant.
  • Make them relevant to your organisation – think about what you need at your place, not what everyone else does. Don’t cut and paste from other organisations just because they have theirs on the internet! We can usually tell when this has happened….
  • Remember – writing a policy never solved a problem. Talking to people usually wins every time.
    The policy document is just the start – it is (usually) the job of HR to interpret, guide and advise. Putting it out there and telling people to read isn’t good enough.

And while we’re at it, don’t worry all that much about getting people to sign them. It really isn’t worth all the hard work. And if you do, once you update them you’ve got to do it all over again. Not to mention the fact that someone (and yes, we mean you, HR person) will have to monitor who hasn’t done it and chase them down.

Lastly, it goes without saying that if you would like any help with policy creation…… then just give me a shout!

Preparing for a different future

On 1 December 2016, Tim participated in a CIPD Liverpool Group event at which we discussed the future of work, in particular:

Robotics, Automation, Artificial Intelligence: How will human beings interact with the new technology?

Slightly ironically, given we were talking about technology, we couldn’t live blog or tweet the event as we were in an underground room with no wifi; however, I did manage to make some notes which form the basis of this blog!

Liverpool John Moores University’s Head of HR Programmes Maureen Royce was leading the event with contributions from Sarah Dixon and me, amongst others.

Maureen started us off:

We need to work out what our roles will be in future in terms of AI and robotics. We have seen the power of robotics when it comes to brain surgery – robotic fingers have a dexterity that humans don’t. Google the word “robot”. You will find unpleasant featured white plastic things marching towards Armageddon with us. There are mixed views about robots – there is a strong fear element, which is not helped by newspaper headlines saying “the robots are here to take our jobs”.

There is increased emphasis on collaboration using technology. This gives us an opportunity to connect and work with people virtually. Sometimes all of the contact between team members is via social media or technology. How do we work with that? The CIPD is about humans and human relationships. What do we need to do when the connectivity doesn’t stop? If all the things we do are visible to Google, how are they going to use it? Human and ethical questions are part of the HR heartland.

What does leadership look like in this environment? We need to work differently and connect differently. It requires a whole different area of skills. Globalisation means we have real time connections. The demographics are changing – Facebook is gaining an older demographic. The academic work talks about being “global and inclusive” but Maureen takes issue with the word “inclusive” because not everyone can access the Internet in every country. Are we creating a division between “those who know and who can” and “those who are excluded”?

For some, “work” can be anywhere, any time. Work-life balance is a concern – maybe we are moving more towards “flow”? If you’re responsible for employee welfare at an organisation and someone says “I work best at 3am”, how do you deal with that?

At this point Tim stepped up to speak a bit about automation and AI.

He quoted a recent report from Deloitte & Oxford University which said that 35% of UK jobs were at risk of automation in next 20 years. Also the former McDonald’s CEO recently told America’s Fox News that a proposed increase in the minimum wage would make companies consider robot workers, saying, “It’s cheaper to buy a $35,000 robotic arm than it is to hire an employee who is inefficient, making $15 an hour bagging French fries.” And the supplier of both Apple and Samsung, Foxconn, recently reported that it replaced 60,000 jobs with robots.

IBM built a supercomputer called Deep Blue which beat grand master Garry Kasparov at Chess. They wanted another Grand Challenge and were pondering trying to develop a machine that could pass the Turing Test. They decided it wouldn’t catch public’s imagination but they decided they wanted a related challenge to bring elements of competing against humans and understanding human speech.

They decided to build a new supercomputer which would tackle the US gameshow “Jeopardy!“. Over 7,000 episodes of Jeopardy! have been aired and it has been running for over 30 years. The basic premise is that it is a quiz in which contestants get general knowledge clues in form of answers and must phrase their responses as questions. IBM set up a special game between their new supercomputer Watson and the show’s two most successful champions in January 2011.

Watson accumulated $77,147 (£47,923) versus Mr Jennings’ total of $24,000 (£14,907) and Mr Rutter’s $21,600 (£12,416)

So what did IBM do next with this technology, which could assimilate vast amounts of information, combine it and then selectively use it to generate a response? They turned to healthcare.

Tim showed this video which demonstrates how Watson has been developed. 

What does all this mean for HR? Well, there are implications for employees in various sectors. Hospitals using Watson in the US are replacing doctors with nurses. Watson could be used in remote areas where there are no doctors. But taking it further, even those roles that require some kind of judgement which we previously thought couldn’t be carried out by computers could be replicated. Like Human Resources….

Maureen took over again:

Computers might tell you ‘what’ but not necessarily ‘how’… We have the technology but do we have the human or the work ecosystems to manage this stuff properly? How do we reshape work to reflect this? How do we deal with assembly line jobs, first line contact centre jobs being automated?

Maureen quoted work by John Boudreau, who has been asking what the future workforce will look like. “Jobs for life” has been gone for some time. “Rapid skills obsolescence” is the new phrase – the speed of skills redevelopment is increasing.

Sarah Dixon, People and OD Analyst in the HR team at Liverpool John Moores University spoke about the use of data in HR analytics. She asked the interesting question, “If your organisation has provided you with wearable technology, who owns your data?” We have willingly given our health data but what is being used for?

Maureen picked up again to discuss algorithms. Precisely engineered instructions to complete a task mean complicated chains of commands for a machine. A machine might be able to tell you that someone is off sick for x number of days. They might not be able to tell you that person A is the main carer for an elderly relative.

Which roles  are least likely to be automated in the future? Maureen quoted Benjamin Snyder who suggests:

  • Lawyers
  • Hotel managers
  • Education (especially nursery and infant schools)
  • Construction manager
  • Social workers
  • Substance abuse/mental health workers
  • Arts occupations

Which roles are most likely?

  • Cashiers
  • Bookkeepers
  • Drivers
  • Packaging
  • Assembly
  • Accountants
  • Legal assistants.

Maureen quoted Peter Cheese who said that robots will only take our jobs if we let them. She asked “Do we want straight line algorithms deciding what we do about absence management or do we want to put a human interaction in there?”

There are huge ethical dilemmas around AI and robotics. We watched an interesting video featuring Barack Obama speaking about driverless cars. Who sets the moral rules for driverless cars? Do we have a general consensus? The same applies to medicine.

The key word here is “values”. Who are we impacting with that decision, at what point do we stop the machine and say “we’re taking over that decision now”? The technology is there. It will come through very quickly.

The World Economic Forum said that in the machine age only the human organisation will survive. We are in the fourth industrial revolution – the boundaries between humans and machines are quickly eroding. This is HR territory!

There is a lot of potential for augmented reality in Learning & Development: we can get a much greater feel for how people can do potentially dangerous jobs without putting them “in the line of fire”.

It forces us to think about what is special about being human. A machine will tell you what but not necessarily how. Human beings don’t stop thinking. How often do you go to bed at night with something on your mind and at some point you wake up and you’ve solved it? The unconscious keeps going. Machines might be able to mirror learned intelligence but how about emotional intelligence?

Channeling the forthcoming Star Wars: Rogue One film (probably unintentionally), Maureen says one of the things that distinguishes humans from machines is that we have hope!

The World Economic Forum also said we are moving from knowledge economies to human economies where the key “skills” will be creativity, empathy, morality, imagination, ethics and compassion.

“Ethics and design go hand in hand” said Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella.

HOW report – there are three different points on the spectrum of organisational characteristics:

  • Blind obedience – command and control
  • Informed acquiescence – rules-based, performance-based rewards
  • Self-governing – shared values and ethics not policies. Only humans can operate in this environment

John Boudreau asked what do we in HR become? He outlined four possibilities:

  • Organisational Perfomance Engineer
  • Culture Architect and Community Activist
  • Global Talent Scout, Convenor and Coach
  • Trend Forecaster and Technology Integrator

It was a fascinating evening with lots of very relevant issues discussed and some eye-opening examples of the potential of technology were given. The debate about the future of work will rumble on as long as there is work to do! We agreed that there is definitely scope for a multi-disciplinary group to get together and consider the major issues we had discussed throughout the evening.