Future Challenges for Human Resources

Someone asked me recently what were the biggest challenges ahead in the HR world.  I spend a lot of time talking with those key figures in business--the people who manage the people--and at the moment I'd say there are three broad areas:

--The soft-skills gap in some younger workers.  Broadly, these are skills involving communications, collaboration, unstructured problem-solving, etc.  I worked with one Fortune 500 firm last year that’s planning a "remedial social skills” course for certain new hires.  

This isn’t the same tired old knock on the Millennials—it’s rather recognizing that technology inadvertently impacts the development of soft skills for at least some in adolescence and emerging adulthood.  It’s a fixable issue that needs to be addressed in K-12 and college, but until that happens, the remediation will fall to employers.

--The challenge of virtual workplaces.  Whether managers like it or not, we are moving to a much more dispersed, partially virtual workforce.  The drivers include the cost of real estate and energy, the burden of commuting (including traffic congestion), and sometimes the preferences of the talented young workers we want.  

I worked with a white-shoe law firm in Manhattan recently who basically promised a partnership to a young woman who graduated Harvard Law with a stellar record.  She turned them down—she’d interned for them one summer, disliked the lifestyle—and said she would take a job, but she wanted to live in Colorado.  The older partners were stunned, but finally gave in.  She works in Colorado, where she skis and hikes, and commutes into Manhattan once a month. 

Of course the physical office is not going away—but it will be more of a place for collaboration than solitary work.  And it will be festooned with telepresence video screens that connect separate offices via always-on “windows”.  Among the challenges for HR: how do you create corporate culture and evaluate employees in a mixed real-virtual workplace?  What are the metrics to determine whether a job or business trip is better handled in the real world or virtually?

The looming issue of white collar automation.  Cognitive computing—the newest evolution of artificial intelligence--is performing many low-level white collar and even professional tasks more cheaply, and often better, than humans.  We already see the impact in services, like accounting and law and advertising, where the entry-level jobs, the traditional stepping stones to full professional responsibility and client contact, are being automated.  What do you do with new workers while they are learning the practicalities of the job?  

But white collar automation will also ultimately strike more broadly, and result in repeated downsizing and restructuring in many sectors.  A key response for HR is to encourage employees toward skills that can’t or won’t be done by computers--and also how to work with cognitive computers in collaborative ways.

The new jobs marketplace.  The aging-out workforce, the shortfalls of our educational system, and the move toward highly specialized job functions, means that by next decade employers may be chasing a smaller and smaller pool of qualified candidates.  And those job candidates may not fully believe in the ability of any corporation to offer them long-term secure careers.  

Taken to its extreme, one could imagine young workers with highly valued of-the-moment skills marketing themselves in an online marketplace in which employers compete and bid up salaries, a bit like professional athletes.  These in-demand employees want to maximize their current payout, knowing that as they grow older they may need to take time off to retrain and re-enter the workforce.