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The World of Work in 2024- What Can HR Expect?

In many senses, 2024 is unlikely to be a year with radical ruptures from those that have gone before it. The significance of 2024 though, is that it is likely to build upon those megatrends impacting the world of work, which have been emerging for some time now and are only likely to strengthen as we move on in time.

These megatrends are being driven by economic, social,  technological, environmental, political and legal developments.

Adoption of new technologies within the workplace

During 2024, both private and public organisations are likely to continue to be under economic pressure, due to intense competition, restricted funding streams and an endemic lack of productivity. Organisations recognise that business as usual will not resolve these issues and as a consequence “technology adoption will remain a key driver of business transformation over the next five years” (World Economic Forum). The aim will be to improve the efficiency of present operations, transform those operations and transform the whole business/organisational model. To date, technology adoption has tended to be rather ad hoc and tactical in nature. A survey by Gartner identified that organisations estimate that 34% of their work activity is conducted by machines and 66% by humans. This automation estimate has only increased by 1% since 2020. That said, going forward, organisations will likely seek to utilise cloud computing, the internet of things, big data and generative AI in a more integrated way to really deliver deep transformations in all aspects of their activities.

This is where the economic and technology trends bump up against the human reality in organisations. This adoption of the frontier technologies is likely to prove very disruptive from an HR perspective.

These technologies can be deployed in a manner which can become all controlling, disempowering and have the effect of down grading the nature of work activity for employees, or they can be deployed to empower people and eliminate non attractive work and liberate time for people to concentrate on more fulfilling tasks. HR will need to be a strong voice pressing for this human-centred approach to technology deployment. They will need to advocate for its deployment in ways which will build positive work cultures and enhance the employee experience.

HR will also need to be mindful that technology deployment will eliminate many jobs, change many jobs considerably and exacerbate the trend away from fixed job descriptions and roles and responsibilities towards the more dynamic and agile allocation of tasks. Additionally, the technologies are likely to drive a massive learning agenda with estimates that nearly 50% of employee skills will be disrupted over the next 5 years. These major skills shifts will not only impact employees, but will place significant pressure on HR to connect with scarce talent in the labour market, managing to attract, recruit, motivate and retain those competences which will be essential for the new world of work.

The impact of demographic shifts

In this context, the demographic shifts are continuing both in the labour market and within organisations. The “Baby boomers” are gradually making way and Millennials and Gen Z are taking up more of the positions within organisations. These new generations are bringing new attitudes and priorities to the work environment, priorities, which are not held exclusively by them but are beginning to disseminate across workforces more generally. These priorities are a source of potential conflict within organisations, even generational conflict. Hybrid working is perhaps one of the clearest examples of this.

There is consistent evidence that organisational leaders see remote working as something which needed to be embraced during the Covid pandemic, but that normality is office-based work. For many of these leaders, their aspiration over the last year or so, is to return to normality and get employees back into the office or workplace. This view is not shared by many of their employees. They have either entered the workplace during Covid times and generationally are used to operating in a virtual environment or they have experienced the benefits of remote working and see no reason to return to the office to undertake work they can just as easily perform elsewhere.

A survey by Gartner identified that 39% of employees said that they would quit their job if forced to return to the office fully and 55% stated that their ability to work flexibly will impact whether they stay with an employer or not. HR will have to take a lead role in these discussions. They should not simply execute the will of their senior leaders, but instead they need to frame the discussion and help shape their organisation’s response. What are the realities of office-based working verses remote working in terms of productivity, engagement, organisational deliverables and so on?  What is the impact on employees of office working verses remote working? What impact would insisting on office working have on employer brand, and the ability to attract, recruit, motivate and retain talent? If office working is a necessary component, how should it be organised such that there is clear differentiation between working remotely and in the office? Just as with the deployment of technology, HR needs to be an independent thinker and project a strong voice into these discussions.

HR also needs to develop a view on and a narrative around where the world of work is headed. It is unlikely, that employee desires for better work life integration are going to go away. The desire for enhanced employee experience is also likely to grow. There will be more demands from employees for organisations to support them with their care-giving responsibilities, whether those be for children, elderly parents, partners or others. HR will need to recognise this and promote that as a key issue on their organisational agendas.

For many of these leaders, their aspiration over the last year or so, is to return to normality and get employees back into the office or workplace.

General Election

Of course, in the UK, 2024 will be a General Election year. As in all election years, politicians and politics can become frantic. All sorts of issues get raised and promises made as politicians seek to secure their own electorates and capture some of the battleground issues.

HR will need to be very well-informed on the political issues, which are relevant to their organisations and should start to prepare their organisations in advance for any changes which they see coming. For example, the leader of the Labour party, Keir Stamer recently stated, “I want to be crystal clear… we are going to level up workers’ rights in a way that has not been attempted for decades”.  The Labour party has also signalled an intent to widen Equal Pay legislation to include Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) workers. HR will need to be well versed on the thinking behind these types of comments, understand what they are likely to mean for their organisation and assess how ready their organisation is to absorb any such changes.

As is expected for a party which is part of the wider Labour Movement, the Labour party has confirmed in its employment rights Green Paper “A New Deal for Working People” that the industrial relations landscape will look very different under a Labour government. Labour contend that current “restrictions on union activity are holding back living standards and the economy” and that should Labour come into power it will ensure to repeal legislation which it deems restricts trade union activity and removes workers’ rights, such as the Trade Union Act 2016. Labour promises that instead, it will “update trade union legislation so it is fit for a modern economy and empowers working people to collectively secure fair pay, terms and conditions.”

Labour also recognises the importance of workplace trade union representation. It intends to “strengthen trade unions’ right of entry to workplaces to organise, meet and represent their members, allow trade unions to use secure electronic and workplace ballots and simplify the law around union recognition”.

Labour will further strengthen the law to enforce workplace rights by establishing a single enforcement body which will be given wide powers to inspect workplaces and bring prosecutions and civil proceedings on workers’ behalf relating to minimum wage violations, worker exploitation, and discriminatory practices.

Additionally, Labour intends to put in place Fair Pay Agreements. These agreements will establish minimum terms and conditions, which would be binding on all employers and workers in a particular sector. This will effectively form a ‘floor’ across industries, helping workers to act collectively to negotiate higher wages, as well as preventing exploitative employers undercutting other good employers in a sector.

In summary, 2024, may be just another year, but it is likely to be a year where more incremental shifts happen aligned to longer-term economic, social and technological trends. Political and legal considerations will also be thrown into the mix. HR will need to be outside facing, rather than consumed by internal, organisational developments. It will need to understand these developments, articulate them and be able to assess the impact of them on their organisations. They will need to be independent thinkers, able to formulate and express views different to prevailing leadership thinking, if necessary. Failure to bring a strong, considered and independent voice to the table would be an abdication of their responsibilities to their organisations and could do those organisations harm. If this is not challenge enough, HR will need to do all of this whilst transforming itself to respond to the technological, social and economic waves which are all lapping at its doors!

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