Legal.FYI: Technology Changing the Face of the Workplace

In this month’s LEGAL.FYI column, Morag Moffett, partner at Burness Paull, looks at the impact of technology on the work environment and the ensuing challenges this change will bring. 

There is no doubt that technology is changing where we work, how we work and when we work. With that comes many advantages – increased productivity, efficiency and potential to increase the bottom line. It can also facilitate increased agile working for a workforce striving to improve work/life balance.

But technology also brings challenges, with which UK employers are continuing to wrestle as they seek to attract, engage and retain a future-ready workforce.

Future Chemistry

The impact of technology was highlighted as a key issue in the Future Chemistry report we recently produced in partnership with clients from across the UK. Looking at the workforce of the future, as well as contributing to issues of mental health in the workplace (which we focused on in an earlier article), it also raised issues for employers in relation to recruitment, employment status and effective team working, together with assessing and preparing for the future impact of automation on existing workforce roles and structures. Many employers report that the answers to those challenges are still eluding them.

The Gig Economy

After a reasonably settled period, we have seen a resurgence in case law in the field of employment status as employers struggle to assess the true employment status of individuals working in the booming gig economy and, with that, their rights entitlements such as holiday pay, sick pay and pension contributions. But do these cases really affect traditional ‘bricks and mortar’ companies that employ the lion’s share of their staff on a permanent basis?

Perhaps not at first glance, but what was telling from such cases against Uber and the like is that there is a critical mass of workers for whom working ‘gigs’ on piecemeal basis is the preference and fits with the millennial who craves the elusive work/life balance.

This technology has become part of our everyday lives, and with consumer and workforce demand for gig working only increasing, the Government is under pressure, in response to the Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices, to strike a balance between employment protection rights for workers on the one hand with the consumer interest to retain these innovative technology platforms on the other.

Agile Working

Competing demand for physical office space and the increasing cost associated with it is driving UK employers to use technology to embrace agile working, with more and more of the UK workforce working remotely on a regular basis.

But will that trend come full circle? Remote-working both in terms of location of work and the nature of work undertaken is reported as leading to increased isolation and mental health issues at work, prompting employees to instead seek out opportunities to increase their on-site interaction with colleagues.

Recruitment

With the advent of social media, the days of simply placing a job advert in a newspaper are long gone. Technology now plays an important role in candidate spotting and recruitment management.

But employers we speak to see the use of artificial intelligence to screen CVs as being a step too far, removing the ability to spot “interesting” candidates that may fit into a company’s culture, and, if incorrectly programmed, impeding efforts to improve diversity by selecting “more of the same” candidates.

Privacy

On the theme of online employee data, employees ought to be in no doubt that what goes on in cyberspace is no different than the real world. The courts and tribunals have established that employees can have no expectation of privacy online, when social media and IT acceptable use policies are engaged.

However, with the introduction of GDPR, we predict a backlash, with moves to separate work and personal life once and for all. Social media is now instantaneous – video content has overtaken the domain of the online CV (LinkedIn) or journal/blog (Twitter and Facebook).

Instagram stories, Snapchat and Facebook Live are where content is now generated and that is where HR should be focusing – both from a legal risk, candidate generation or employee engagement perspective.

AI

Of course the perhaps most significant unknown are the HR implications of artificial intelligence. Jack Ma (of B2B marketplace disrupter Alibaba) predicts that we will all be working a 16 hour week by 2045, and that routine jobs will be replaced by technology and AI interventions.

In practice, however, for every job that is downsized as a result of AI, there will be new career opportunities to stimulate the next generation of workers. If the answers to how employers address the impact of technology on established ways of working are not straightforward, what is certain is that all employers are now ‘tech’ companies, whatever their sector or business focus.

Technology is central to all that we do in the world of commerce and work. Future-facing employers must respond and adapt to it to build a future ready workforce.



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