Why HR should care about automation in the workplace

Autonomous vehicles and cashier-free stores may be a way off, but the effects of automation are already being felt. At a recent factory inauguration in Indiana, GE chief executive Jeff Immelt soberly told reporters that “we’re going to add workers, but probably not as many as we would have twenty years ago”. He added that job descriptions are rapidly evolving as new technologies enable professionals to become “smarter, more productive” in how they carry out their work.

This trend is affecting not only GE and other industrial giants but small businesses as well. The labor changes in the latter segment are driven by a different set of technologies with the potential to make just as broad of an impact as what Immelt described seeing on the production floor.

The near term

Much of the productivity gains that the small business segment is set to see in the next few years will come as part of firms’ transition from traditional on-premise software to the cloud. Software-as-a-service products such as GoCo require less effort to operate and, more importantly as far as automation is concerned, offer a better user experience. Having to spend less time on the small tasks that take up the bulk of a professional’s work day can add up across a team.

The specifics vary among departments. HR professionals that use GoCo, for instance, can automatically sync personnel changes to their payroll systems without performing manual data entry. And companies who rely on Salesforce, the popular sales automation platform, save users the hassle historically involved in organizing customer records. With Intuit expecting nearly 80 percent of small businesses to adopt cloud services by 2020, this trend is poised to make a major impact on how work is performed.

Keeping up will be essential to maintaining competitiveness as technology advancements continue to raise the bar on employee output. It’s a priority not only as far as the bottom line is concerned, but from an HR standpoint as well. A recent Gallup study found that one of the strongest indicators of job stress is whether or not staffers have the tools they require to be productive.

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The long term

The gap between firms that embrace automation and those don’t is set to be made even wider by artificial intelligence, which is emerging as a key focus in the tech industry’s automation push. AI is only just starting to reach small businesses, but it’s already picking up steam in the world of large enterprises. The applications of the technology in the latter segment offer a clue as to how it will impact the rest of the market further down the road.

The world’s largest companies use AI to automate the same kind of repetitive, low-key chores that cloud services are helping to address, but on a bigger scale. The technology often takes the form of recommendation tools configured to help workers with tasks like deciding if a potential client is worth pursuing. Other implementations more closely resemble Apple’s Siri virtual assistant. Solutions in the latter category, which are collectively known as chatbots, lend themselves to a wide range of uses from scheduling meetings to running employee satisfaction polls.

HR teams will have to adjust their recruiting efforts to address the changes that these technologies are driving in how professionals do their work. Among others, tomorrow’s job postings can be expected to place a smaller emphasis on proficiency in administrative tasks like data entry that are becoming increasingly automated. The same goes for the requirement that candidates should have experience with specific applications, which is often only included due to the unwieldiness of traditional software. As a result, businesses that make the switch to cloud services and AI will be able to tap a broader talent pool while helping the workers they bring aboard be more productive.

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