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Artificial Intelligence and Automation in the Workplace

The future is here and employers must change hiring habits and processes to remain competitive


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A recent survey by Willis Towers Watson predicts that in just three short years the use of sophisticated technology like artificial intelligence (AI) and robots will double in many workplace environments – including white-collar offices that have not experienced the robot invasion of the manufacturing industry. Several forces drive this accelerating trend toward automation:

  • Increasingly sophisticated, cloud-based AI technology
  • Declining technology costs due to unrelenting competition
  • Decreasing workforce size due to demographic and other changes
  • Increasing labor costs

This will transform how work is done and who is doing it. The report suggests that fewer full-time workers will be needed, replaced by technology and contingent (temporary, on-call, contract, specialists, etc.) workers. Many employers must change hiring habits, processes and contemplate the skill competencies needed to remain competitive into the future.

How can employers prepare for this automated future? Here are a few ideas for HR professionals to consider:

  • Adoption of automation and new technology will vary greatly by industry, and will likely impact their supply chain, including other employers. Focus on what is likely to happen in your line of work, while remaining aware of broader developments.
  • Facilitate “what if” scenario discussions with diverse teams to explore and game play scenarios. Use examples of how other companies are using technology to stimulate ideas. Chances are, if it can be imagined, it can happen!
  • The report states that employers are “deconstructing jobs” to identify components that can be accomplished with technology. Evaluate job designs in your environment and identify those tasks that may be replaced by technology or contingent workers; most often these are repetitive administrative tasks. Identify those highest-value tasks that must remain assigned to the most skilled and committed employees. Example: Employers are using AI “bots” on their websites to assist applicants with FAQs and to handle many pre-employment tasks; Recruiters’ time is freed up for high-touch relationship building with applicants.
  • Network with HR professionals who have experienced tech “upscaling”, even in other industries; learn from their experiences to avoid pitfalls and gain helpful tips.
  • Conduct an internal Tech Skill Inventory to measure internal tech talent, identify gaps and future needs. Factor this into future hiring requirements for new employees, as well as development and training plans for current employees. Virtually every position with every employer must develop a heightened technology skill set to take full advantage of the potential benefits increased automation offers.
  • Partner internally with IT staff and request their assistance in staying on top of trends and to identify opportunities and threats.
  • Watch Star Trek. Seriously! Digital personal assistants like Alexa, Echo and Siri were predicted in this 1960s sci-fi television show. Observe how the starship crew interacts with their version (“Computer”); what can we learn from them that may apply to our workplaces? Example: Blind people are finding their lives empowered and liberated thanks to voice-activated personal assistants. Perhaps this technology can unleash new opportunities in any workplace.

Keep in mind disruptive technology challenges employers who previously have not considered automation as a realistic or necessary part of their strategy. Yet if a competitor successfully launches efforts to reduce costs using technology, tech “laggards” will be at a competitive disadvantage in the marketplace for customers and talented new workers. Surveys show employees will leave employers with outdated technology; talented employees don’t want their skills to lag the market.


As an HR research consultant for Employers Council, James McDonough consults with member employers to provide guidance and support on their organizational practices. He writes articles, conducts presentations and trainings on HR compliance, organizational effectiveness and business management topics. A graduate of the University of Colorado-Boulder, McDonough has worked in the public and private sectors in HR and business management.

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