Human Faces in Digital Times

When the human touch is balanced with technology processes, companies can benefit from a more efficient and productive workforce.

Shuchita Dua Dullu

The Human Resource department in organisations of all sizes have always had a critical and a pivotal role to play. The key roles of the HR department in any business include but are not limited to attracting and retaining best talent, creating and promoting company values, career planning, maximising employee performance, leadership pipelines, risk management and advising on and managing employee relations.

In an era when the traditional world of work continues to evolve and technology reigns supreme, human resource leaders have a huge role to play in ensuring their organisation remains competitive as well as a desirable place to work.

In the current scenario, the role of the HR department is fast evolving from being one that is primarily administrative to taking on a more strategic and operational responsibility. They are expected to look after everything from management training to employee wellbeing. The HR leader’s role today requires the need to be constantly in touch with their employees. Thus communication using emails, social media and other online networks has become imperative.

Human Resources is under an increasing threat of digitisation with more and more processes becoming automated and job cuts appear inevitable. Research carried out by Oxford University and Deloitte found that 35 per cent of jobs in the United Kingdom are at high risk of digitisation over the next twenty years. With technology enabling business owners to reduce overhead by downsizing their workforce, individuals whose skill sets are now obsolete have limited options for employment if their current jobs are eliminated.

While technology is needed to maintain competitiveness, it is important for HR leaders to ensure that digitisation does not lead to the death of ‘human touch’.

The rapid increase in reliance on technology to communicate may be adversely impacting our interpersonal skills. A global survey of 13,600 employees in the age band 18 to 65 years conducted by recruitment firm Randstad found that that while the growing use of technology is diminishing the human touch at work, 78 per cent of New Zealand workers see the increase in digitisation as an opportunity. This sentiment was on par with Australia (76 per cent) and the global average (79 per cent). However, while technology is forging ahead, the power of human interaction is not to be underestimated, with 85 per cent of New Zealand and 88 per cent Australian workers reporting that face-to-face meetings are the best way to interact with people at work.

The results of a 2016 Workmonitor study by HR services specialists also showed that workplace atmosphere was the second most important factor for people looking for a new job and sixty-five per cent Australian workers felt that the society was becoming less compassionate as a result of growing use of technology.

Technology should help improve work flows and make an employee’s interaction with HR as seamless and timely as possible. However, there is some concern that with the race to automate as many functions as possible, the question for the need to maintain or increase face-to-face communication is relevant, particularly where activities such as employee engagement, retention and workplace relations are concerned.

To maintain the Human in Human Resources, modern HR departments should try an integrative approach, whereby humans and technology work together to improve HR practices as a whole. While implementing automation has huge benefits for administrative functions, it doesn’t make the role of HR staff redundant.

When a human touch is balanced with technology, companies may benefit from a more efficient and productive workforce. An Employee Retention- Review of Literature by Das and Baruah 2013 lists face-to-face communication and feeling valued by an organisation as two very important factors in employee retention. When employees feel that their employer genuinely cares, they are likely to go that extra mile in return.

With teams becoming more dispersed and employees operating from home or working flexible hours, encouraging face-to-face communication for departmental operations has become a necessity.

Findings of the Third European Company Survey- Direct and indirect employee participation, indicates that more extensive forms of direct and indirect employee participation are associated with positive establishment outcomes. Employers who encourage personal communication are perceived as more flexible by their employees.  Not only that, it is seen that employers who have strong personal relationships with their employees, are more likely to have employees with strong work ethics.

For employers to connect at a more direct, physical level with their employees, they must go beyond electric communication. To make employees feel supported and encouraged, there are a number of practical ways in which HR can re-introduce the importance of interpersonal skills in their organisations.

As a rule, employers must place more focus on ensuring that employees learn how to network more effectively both online and in person. Offering formal training in networking skills benefit both the employer and employee and ensures that employees isolated by email do not become a threat to an employer’s competitiveness.

While email communications are a necessity to maintain audit trail of employee conversations and maintaining documentation, managers must approach more sensitive issues such as terminating an employee’s service, more personally.

Essentially, the benefits of personal communication are not limited to building relationships between departments, but also extend to potential new clients. Visual cues during face-to-face communication, as against email interaction, will prove to be a quicker way to build trust and helps with client negotiations. In 1971, Albert Mehrabian published a book Silent Messages, in which he discussed his research on non-verbal communication. He concluded that prospects based their assessments of credibility on factors other than the words the salesperson spoke—the prospects studied assigned 55 per cent of their weight to the speaker’s body language and another 38 per cent to the tone and music of their voice. They assigned only 7 per cent of their credibility assessment to the salesperson’s actual words. The results of this pioneering research study have been replicated over the years across organisational domains.

Based on the statistics, it is safe to conclude that technology can and must never be used to replace the human touch. Rather, HR personnel must work on the needs of employees and aligning their wellbeing, performance and output with overarching business objectives.

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