Machines Will Rule the Workplace?  Not So Fast…

There’s no arguing that we’re in an era of unprecedented technological advancement.  When I look back on when I started my career just out of college (longer ago now than I care to admit, but still not that long ago) and think about how much the workplace, and life in general, has changed over that almost two decades, it’s pretty remarkable.  When I was in college, email was just gaining traction.  I got a pager when I graduated because that was the cool thing to do, but I still had to stop at a pay phone (remember those?) to check the voicemail.  My first cell phone came a few years later, but it was years before cell phones became a standard offering in the office, and then it was those first clunky Blackberries.  I remember when I got my first text from a friend and couldn’t understand the point.  And Facebook? Twitter?  Why would I need THAT?

Fast forward to present day and not only are tech devices an ubiquitous part of our lives both in and out of work, social networks a normal part of connecting and communicating with each other, video chats a daily part of life (hello Back to the Future!), but the capabilities of the technology available in the workplace beyond our wildest imaginations just 20 years ago.  Predictive and prescriptive analytics, machine learning and artificial intelligence, computers that can act more and more like humans.  It’s not quite so futuristic anymore.

So of course there are ongoing debates, discussions, and arguments about whether or not these human like machines will make real humans in the workplace obsolete.  After all, if machines can “think” and “reason” like humans, why would we need humans?

The short answer to that is maybe we won’t.  For some things.  But I believe that while machines can replace humans in some regards, there are some things they just cannot do.

A recent CareerBuilder report cited that 55% of HR managers believe that artificial intelligence and automation will become a regular part of human resources within the next five years.  It went on to list various functions that HR managers say are fully or partially automated, a list that included payroll, background checks, applicant tracking, compliance, and benefits administration among others, functions that are largely transactional in nature.  It also went on to quote Rosemary Haefner, the chief human resources officer at CareerBuilder, in saying:

“What robots and AI can’t replace, however, is the human element of HR that shapes company culture, provides an environment for employees built on IQ and EQ, works hand in hand with company leaders to meet business goals and ensures employees have the training and support to thrive.  You need living, dynamic people who can navigate the ‘gray’ to do that, not robots that can quickly work through black and white.”

Additionally, a recent Accenture report, Harnessing Revolution – Creating the Future Workforce, included several points which aligned with this line of thinking as well:

“In this era of rapid and widespread technological change, being human is more valuable than ever.”

“…fewer jobs will be lost to automation if people are able to reallocate their skills to tasks that require more ‘human skills’ such as complex analysis and social/emotional intelligence.”

“Despite the rising number of technical skill based jobs, there are many that still require ‘human skills’ – an increased emphasis on uniquely human skills – creativity, critical thinking and empathy”


Social/emotional intelligence.  Navigating the gray. Human skills.  Empathy. “Being human.”  All of the “skills” that a machine can’t necessarily master, but all things that bring humanity to our workplaces.

I have a coworker who was recently dealt some very difficult, life altering news.  As well those of us who work with her know her, as long as some of us have worked side by side with her and have developed friendships with her over the years, many of us did not know initially what to say to comfort her, to ease her mind, to help her make sense of what was happening.  All except for one person. This person knew exactly what to say, how to say it, and when to say it.  There was no hesitation, no awkwardness.  I would even go as far as to say that this person has a gift when it comes to dealing with other people.  She knows exactly how to relate to them, even if she’s never been in their position.  But instinctively she know.  And we are a better team because she is on it.

No computer algorithm is perfect.  Regardless of how “smart” a machine is, or how advanced machine learning/artificial intelligence is, it will not be able to do what my teammate can do.

There is absolutely a place for machine learning and artificial intelligence.  It can and will certainly make us better, more efficient and effective at some, and maybe even many of the tasks we need to do.  But it can’t do everything. As the Accenture report cited, “Machine augmentation can, in fact, liberate human potential.”

Technology is powerful, and becoming more powerful each day. But it can’t replace the human touch. The key is to find a way to best leverage it without losing sight of what it is that makes us human.

  • About the Author

    Jennifer Payne, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, has nearly two decades of HR experience in employee relations, talent acquisition, learning & development, and employee communications, and currently works in talent management in the retail grocery industry. She is one of the co-founders, principal writers, and current editor of the Women of HR blog. Payne has blogged for WorkHuman, numerous SHRM Annual Conferences, and is part of the “HR Tech Insiders” for the HR Technology Conference

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The STRIVE Group

The STRIVE Group