Organisation design in the future of work: Keeping it human

In thinking about the impact of technology on the future workplace, it’s a standard response to express concern about a potential lack of humanity and a dystopian, machine-driven future. But at a recent HRD breakfast discussion looking at organisational design and the future of work, run by CIPD, with BT and Cambridge Judge Business School, it was suggested that technology can increase empathy and understanding between co-workers – if the people function is involved.

We brought together a group of HR leaders from a range of sectors, including some of the UK’s largest FTSE businesses, government departments and professional services firms. Despite the diversity of organisations in the room, many of the challenges and opportunities are the same.

They include:

  • The tension between centralisation v federated structures, and the challenge of balancing of autonomy and agility with consistency, control and accountability
  • The need for us to get better at defining frameworks for governing work, rather than defining exactly how things work
  • What agility and ‘self-organising’ teams actually mean in practice. How does it change what someone does on a Monday morning? Many organisations have decades of siloed legacy to contend with
  • The need to create networks to share knowledge, working more comfortably within multi-disciplinary teams to achieve organisational outcomes
  • The broadening out of ‘HR’ to ‘people’, looking at the whole people agenda in a systemic sense
  • The need for leaders to cede control and be more comfortable with ambiguity, supported by the people function. With the flattening out of organisations, many leader roles have become too large to allow much day-to-day management and must be based on setting a vision and empowering the organisation to deliver it

But in addition to all this, one word stood out repeatedly in our discussion: empathy. Variously we heard about the need for leaders to be empathetic, the potential for technology to make people more empathetic, the need for empathy in any discussions about automation and the worry that something about organisational systems – the business environment in which we operate – is blocking empathy, particularly at senior levels.

There was an acknowledgement that any technology roll-out, whether automation or self-service, is an exercise with a human at its heart – so while technology might be helping with efficiency and productivity, is it also contributing to feelings of isolation, loneliness or overwhelm, and how can the people function best guard against this? If tasks and roles are being automated, what impact does that have on the shape of your organisation, the roles you need for the future (how will you move people up the value chain, for example?), and the societies in which you operate (what happens if your technology strategy leads to a spike in unemployment in your community?).

However a piece of research we published earlier this year, People and Machines: From Hype to Reality, found a pretty grim picture of HR’s involvement in technology strategies. It found that of all the departments in an organisation, HR is the least likely to be involved in investment decisions on AI and automation and in its implementation – below procurement, finance and even marketing and sales. HR is especially unlikely to be involved when the technology is being used for cognitive tasks, which is interesting – perhaps we could go as far to say just plain wrong – given that these changes may have greater implications for skillsets required in organisations and a bigger impact on people.

As one CPO participant put it, the future workplace is about “a handshake between technology and humans”, with technology here to augment what people can do. Empathy is a uniquely human skill, and one our potential robot overlords are unlikely to ever be able to possess. It is core to ensuring a tech-driven future workplace doesn’t descend into a dystopian nightmare, and it is an attribute that people leaders should be pushing and agitating for, showing leaders why it matters in a system which may sometimes push it to one side.

Stephen Cassidy, chief researcher, systems science at BT Research & Innovation, is researching information flows within organisations and the intersection between technology, systems, teams and individuals. His research has found technology can increase empathy between teams, but only if it is used in the right way. He reflected towards the end of the session: “Will AI actually force us to become more human?” Perhaps, if people leaders get involved in this debate earlier and the profession works more proactively to shape the future of work.

Katie Jacobs is senior stakeholder lead at the CIPD. If you are a senior HR leader (HRD level) who would like to get involved in future discussions, please email to express interest

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