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Is data replacing face-to-face?

(Image credit: Image Credit: Geralt / Pixabay)

After 16 months of restrictions, ‘freedom day’ finally arrived. But for many, this has been anticlimactic and arguably, not as ‘free’ as we’d like to have thought. While it’s true that employers no longer have to instruct workers to operate remotely, we are far from being rid of the virus. With Covid-19 continuing to spread like wildfire, employers still have a responsibility to protect their workers and others from risks to their health and safety. 

On top of that, the UK is facing another challenge - a national ‘pingdemic’ that is ultimately forcing thousands of employees to periodically work entirely remotely or worse - unable to work at all. While sectors such as hospitality are witnessing widespread and serious staff shortages, other sectors are having to stall back to the office plans. The situation got so out of control, that the NHS Covid-19 app had to be rewired in order to notify fewer contacts to isolate. At this rate, the traditional 5-day office routine will continue to remain all but a distant memory. To cope, how is technology evolving to withstand the continued disruption to our working habits?

Turbocharging digital journeys 

Despite all the turmoil, work from home is also now a sixteen-month-old norm for organizations across the globe. Almost overnight, the majority of white-collar workers switched their long-houred commutes to set up their monitors on kitchen tables, garages and home offices to carry out their day-to-day role. But this wasn’t the only switch. Companies had to place technology at the top of their agendas to connect workers in a world now split by varying locations. In essence, organizations had to switch from doing technology ‘light’ to doing technology ‘right’ - for raw survival. 

As we all had to adapt to a virtual world, technology and data capabilities had to evolve at double the pace, driven by the need to withstand the challenges of remote working. At the most basic level, we naturally saw the usage of communication channels spike over the past year. Microsoft Teams, for example, reached 145 million users in April as businesses flock to video calls. Whilst tools such as this are undoubtedly useful, they merely enable us to do our work - and this is where a divide is beginning to emerge. 

In March 2020, we looked to technology as an enabler. Since then, some companies have taken it a whole level up, and we’ve seen years worth of digital transformation in just months. Now, what we’re seeing is technology becoming transformational as brands race to compete with their tech-first peers. In a study from Microsoft, for example, the majority of respondents said the pandemic ‘turbocharged’ their digital journeys. For many, this has meant leveraging technology to go far beyond work optimization. But what does this mean for the future of our workforce?

Beyond workforce optimization  

While the office hub may be important for workplace culture, the pandemic has highlighted that it is not integral to the continuation of performance. For the most part, organizations have been perfectly capable and highly productive in carrying out their day-to-day role, completely remotely - facilitated by the capabilities of advanced technology and communication tools. 

With this realized, the real question lies with what happens next. Can technology now go a step further and begin to exceed being merely a facilitator, but go beyond workforce optimization? With a heavy push from the pandemic, implementing new technologies and the thoughtful use of technology can now make the most of an individual’s human capabilities - and here’s where advanced tools such as AI are taking center stage. 

Although the mention of AI may conjure up scenes from a science fiction movie or book with gloomy predictions about it taking over our jobs, in reality AI has its role at work. When Deloitte did a survey on this in 2020, they found that only 12 percent of those surveyed said their organizations are primarily using AI to replace workers, while 60 percent said their organization was using AI to assist rather than to replace workers. So, the question is no longer if AI will affect jobs but more importantly ‘how’ it will affect them. From an HR perspective it can give leaders incredible new intelligence about who to hire, how much to pay employees, career paths, who to promote and how people feel about the company.

AI can be deployed to specifically assist HR professionals, giving the department detailed intelligence about who to hire, how much to pay them, the direction of their career paths, who to promote, and even how people feel about the company culture. For example, chatbots could assist HR with managing employees calling out sick, recording the absence and reason, and then automatically update the employee’s records and payroll system. Or perhaps technology could be utilized to analyze anonymous employee sentiment in a way humans can’t to provide HR with better insights into whether employees are responding to current or planned initiatives.

Implementing new technologies and the thoughtful use of technology can actually maximize an individual’s human capabilities. HR Technology can be used to put the human back into Human Resources, finding and utilizing complementary capabilities to broaden an employee’s scope of work. The opportunity for AI to add value is therefore huge.

Data is the future  

Even if a return to a face-to-face model is imminent, it cannot be denied that the pandemic has opened our eyes to the potential of new technologies and it has allowed data to quite literally sit at our fingertips. Yet rather than thinking of AI, communication tools and other innovative technologies as a replacement for humans (although sometimes that is the case) it is more about finding and utilizing complementary capabilities. Ultimately, remote work has driven the need for tech to evolve quicker than ever before - but no doubt, it has truly risen to the challenge. 

Mark Seemann, Founder and CEO, StaffCircle (opens in new tab)

Mark is a Product Creator and Software Entrepreneur who founded three SaaS businesses worth more than £35m. An expert in communications technology, CRM, Business Workflow and creator of 2 VoIP patents.