The New Frontier

The New Frontier

The transition to a ‘hybrid state’ – where humans work seamlessly alongside technology, understanding and appreciating one another’s role and recognising each other’s strengths and weaknesses – needs consideration.

I magine this… You walk into your office and say hello to your team. Some are humans. Some are not. Two of them are robots. You greet your human colleagues, type hello in the chat pod and walk to the coffee machine with Sam, your ‘digital’ team member. As you press for coffee, the machine chats with you and enquires if you slept well. It gauges your mood (by the intensity with which you touch the coffee button) and then brews up the coffee that will work for you today.  


As you walk back to your desk, you say hello to your co-worker who is now preparing to leave your organisation. His two-week tenure is over. This is normal. The girl, sitting next to him, has been around for 2 days. And this is her 8th time here.  


You settle down to work on a go-to-market strategy for a garment company in Mumbai. Last week, you were designing a communications plan for an NGO in Raipur. You start to draft a mail and your robot teammate sends you the data you need to complete the plan. You ask the chat pod to verify it. As evening descends, you swipe out of the office and your salary gets paid.  


Undoubtedly, the advent of new technologies, combined with changing work cultures and more agile corporate structures, promises a significant change in the future world of work. Say hello to the hybrid workforce! It is on the horizon. With this, the dynamics between the employer and employee will change, similar to how organisations will change the way they allocate work between human and digital labour. But the transition to a ‘hybrid state’ – where humans work seamlessly alongside technology, understanding and appreciating one another’s role and recognising each other’s strengths and weaknesses – needs consideration.    


There are five important considerations that organisations will need to think about.  


• Oh my God! The bots are coming: The biggest human issue is the fear of replacement – but the purpose of Robot Process Automation (RPA) is not to simply reduce headcount and cut costs, it is about making resource allocation more effective. In many cases, this implies a reduction in workload and providing employees with more time for creativity. Let us be real, there will be a few job losses, but every 50 years, such a transition happens and after the dust has settled, people gain more meaningful jobs, than lose.  


• The coffee pot and a bot: With the advent of bots or digital workers on our teams, the biggest problem will be about creating a cohesive organisational culture.  


What levels of accountability exists for bots?  


What kind of team member will a bot be?  


Will they have my back if something goes wrong?  


Can a bot be my friend and collaborator?  


These are only some of the many questions that are playing on people’s minds. The media has a big role to play in this by way of making headlines that propagate FUD (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt). Somewhere between the caricatures of robots saving precious dollars and the fear of workforce annihilation lies a more nuanced truth behind those headlines. The key message is that RPA can make people better workers, not relegate them to the scrapheap.  


• Beyond the fear of the Bot: Whilst some have a certain amount of anxiety around the hybrid work future, many can see that working with a hybrid workforce will enable them to take on more creative and fulfilling work. They are aware that technology will increasingly take over many of the more mundane tasks, and help them make the time to focus their efforts on more meaningful, impactful work.  


• The end of HR, long live HR: In the hybrid workforce, there will be no Human Resources function. After all, humans will not be the only resource of the organisations. HR, as we know it, will cease to exist, but it will play an even larger role in humanising technology and ‘technologizing’ humans. The HR function will help in creating transparent processes, rewards systems and communication channels that govern the unique relationships that exist amidst digital and human employees.  


•  Purpose and passion: With bots and humans working together, purpose and passion will take on a new meaning. If passion is to be measured by the quantity of work and quality of output, then the bots will outdo humans all the time. But when you add, emotion, purpose and meaning to the work, that gets done by the heart- then this is where humans will surpass the bots. Imagine now when these two come together for the organisation- it will be a winning combination, provided one has the eyes to see it.  


Finally, let me rewind to 1920. This was when the word ‘robot’ was first used by Czech playwright, Karel Čapek, in his hit play, ‘Rossum’s Universal Robots’. In this play, the robots do so well, they really kind of take over Earth. As in, they take over the army. They take over all the work. Even human women can no longer reproduce because they have forgotten how. Then the robots start to kill all the humans until they realise that they will kill the very people who created them. That is where the play ends, with robots deciding that they and humans need to live together.  


Today, 100 years later, in a more practical way, businesses are recognising that their competitive advantage, relies on successfully leveraging available tech to support, empower and engage their workforces. Yes, it makes business sense, but a hybrid work culture is not just about adopting AI and robots into our workforce, it is really about helping people understand and truly embrace the power of this change. If approached strategically, a hybrid workforce will fast track organisations to a whole new level of performance, innovation and growth- where man and machine can and must co-exist!  

Nishath Usmani is responsible for leadership development of senior leaders at KPMG. She comes with an experience of more than 18 years in leadership development, learning strategy, talent management, facilitation, coaching & learning communications. She has worked previously worked in Capgemini’s Corporate University and Deloitte Consulting. Nishath is presently pursuing Ph.D. in management (HR).


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