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HR for holograms: preparing for the future workforce

Paul Boustead confronts the challenge of planning for the future university workforce.
This article is more than 4 years old

Paul Boustead is director of human resources and organisational development at Lancaster University and chair of Universities Human Resources (UHR) until September 2019. 

In the local paper nostalgia column I spotted a picture from the mid-1960s of a coal cart, drawn by a horse, and trailed round an otherwise empty roundabout by a single bicycle. Fast-forward a little and I’m snarled up most mornings in the exact same place.

We see so many indicators of change in our lives. Have a laugh with an older colleague at the mere concept of fax machines. Though we struggle to process change in live time, we know we are on an endless continuum, and that the speed of change is increasing. Every single piece of technology, every single process and perhaps every single way of working that we rely on today may go the way of the coal cart, the empty roundabout and the fax. And soon.

What’s the HR task in all this? Do we stand on the edge of the torrent and watch change happen? Actually, we have no choice other than to jump in and try to shape what is happening around us.

We’re talking ’bout a revolution

One of the most fascinating aspects of HR management today is to help our workplaces face the future, to swim and thrive in a world of constant change and built-in disruption – I picture seals, sleek and fast and endlessly adaptive even as the waves crash around them. Technology drives much of this, and alongside that, public response to technology. Millions already work as digital nomads, rootless geographically – six months in Bali, six in Sweden – but rooted by their high-value skills and ability to navigate a career enabled by shared global technologies. Work-life balance? My own efforts at achieving that seem laughable in comparison. What bright graduate in 2019 wouldn’t be looking to shape their career in this or other tech-enabled ways now open to them?

We already know the traditional nine-to-five is anathema to these people, and universities risk falling victim to the generational divide in expectations. If our students increasingly expect 24-hour libraries, open access to materials and learning via lecture capture, top-quality courses delivered digitally anywhere in the world and with little traditional face time with tutors, how are our institutions placed to deliver that? If the 24-hour campus is where we are heading, then that needs hardwiring into contracts from day one.

Imperial recently debuted the world’s first lecture delivered by hologram, with speakers based in the US interacting in live time with students in the UK. How are our academics placed to deal with disruption like this – from the perceived threat of loss of intellectual property to the concerns over change in status and reward associated with a more fragmented delivery of their knowledge and skills? Is that kind of tech driving us towards a new breed of international uber-lecturers, broadcasting from New York penthouse flats to meet contracts at scores of international universities? Industry needs fast and flexible courses, and without unfair simplification, “instant impact”. As HR teams we need to ask ourselves how we facilitate this. Recruiting staff with more “future-facing” attitudes is perhaps easier than changing the skills (and contracts) of existing staff, but we also run the risk of sacrificing hard-won experience for the nebulous merits of adaptability.

The speed of change risks us fossilising, immovably stuck to the most recent technology or process we actually understand, a potential problem in every team and every department. For example, at the moment we are better at monitoring whether or not someone is present than we are at monitoring their outputs. If we’re struggling in our HR teams with the comparative simplicities of introducing open-plan offices, remote working, family-friendly policies, or a more agile workforce, we need to ask ourselves how we are intending to deal with automation. If we’re struggling to optimise basic HR systems, or tangled in knots over our attitudes to social media, how is our planning for artificial intelligence going?

Note to self: my relationships with IT specialist colleagues are among the most important I hold. My ability to engage with rapidly-approaching technologies and shape them within daily institutional use is vital. It’s the “human”: the moral and the ethical where I add value, and in channelling the aspirations of the institution into workable policies and practices. Let me add a note to my younger self: there’s a well-paid job title coming soon, that requires skills from both disciplines, and it’s called something like Director of Future Working. No, second thoughts, scrub that, that’s wrong. That’s my job. That’s now.

Moulding the future

Not all change is tech-driven of course, but if we focus on tech as a catalyst alone and take automation as our example, that’s also “now” rather than “future”. We’re frightened of automation, because our instant mental picture is one of machines putting workers out of a job. But automation already surrounds us, making many mini-interactions simpler and quicker, and it’s a simplistic assumption that jobs have been lost rather than created by it. Our universities are at the forefront of this change, our academics are engaging with it, working with industry to develop and pilot and introduce automation into every aspect of our lives: personal, social, commercial, educational. And whether we like it or not on a personal level; it’s here.

As a sector we’re behind the curve, not always engaging with the world new tech is creating for us. At Staffordshire they’ve introduced an Employee Engagement app that gathers information in real time and makes those of us struggling with annual paper-and-pen staff surveys look a little technologically Jurassic. That’s fantastic, and we all ought to do something similar: indeed, the Staffordshire HR Team have been shortlisted for a UHR Award. But if we’re honest, your grandma knows what an app is: we can’t keep being amazed at having caught up with five years ago. I’m not being critical from a position of strength here – Lancaster struggles with all of this as much as anyone. For instance, we’ve recently been caught on the back foot on social media, with leaked plans scuppering long-scheduled workflows and announcements. Social media is too often seen as the bugbear and not the opportunity by HR teams: that’s one shift in attitudes to technology that’s crying out for change in both the sector and the HR discipline.

In writing this article I asked colleagues across the country for their thoughts on where we are heading on “Future working”, and took heart from one conversation more than any. Satvinder Reyatt, Group People Director at the Open University, places digital skills at the heart of strategic priorities: “We want to attract the best and most digitally savvy talent into the workforce, and when they arrive, we want them to meet with existing colleagues that are upskilled on technology and engaged with new ways of working,” she said. “But the HR role is to emphasise values and behaviours no matter what the technology. We need to embed what we value and believe right through the employee lifecycle from attraction to exit. The right reward and recognition is vital too. We’re looking at methods for instant recognition to underpin a huge organisational development and culture change programme currently underway.”

That’s an argument for “channel agnosticism” – whether we work with ink and quill, or via hologram, or via a yet-to-be-invented Something, it’s for us to focus on values and behaviours in contributing to our workplaces in the authentic HR voice. We don’t need to predict – how can we? But we do need to respond to wherever we find ourselves in consistent ways – with integrity, and with our core understanding of best practice in the discipline to guide us.

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