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The future of HR is on our phones

In the coming years, the rise of automation and apps in HR functions will likely accelerate.
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Francis Scialabba

· 8 min read

We’ve consulted all the horoscope apps, shaken our Magic 8-ball until “All signs point to yes,” and even interviewed some experts. This is the future they foretold: The next five years of HR will be on apps.

The year is 2027, and almost every HR process under the sun starts with a push notification, then a gentle vibrating nudge, and concludes with a message requesting that the employee rate their user experience.

The consensus among HR leaders and software developers who HR Brew recently interviewed is that there will be AI-powered apps for recruiters, apps that integrate the in-office and home-office experiences, apps that offer learning and development, apps for employee engagement and community building, and apps to automate the mundane, like tax preparation.

Then, a company must create an app that can sync all of that.

“It’ll be an aggregator, sort of like how you can use Google single sign-on for everything,” Kim Rohrer, interim head of people at global payroll and benefits platform Oyster, believes.

There’s real money backing up the predictions of an app-centric HR future. VC interest in HR tech exploded in 2021; as of October, funding was up 130% compared to 2020, according to PitchBook data, with $9.2 billion invested in venture capital globally. Holger Mueller, principal analyst and VP at Constellation Research, said the HR tech market will “continue to grow and attract substantial capital from investors in the years to come.”

Mueller explained that demand is presently driven by a need for “location-free HR services.”

Many see this need persisting.

“I think we all know now that hybrid work and remote work is here to stay,” Oshrat Binyamin, Monday.com’s vice president of HR, told HR Brew.

More human than human (resources). For an industry commonly referred to as “the people profession,” HR delivered by app may sound oddly impersonal and slightly dystopian. But advocates for automation say tech advancements will liberate human resource professionals to spend their time making more meaningful human connections.

Binyamin stressed that the core competencies for HR professionals in the future may swing toward being “more data-driven and more strategic, but they’re also always going to be leading with the heart.”

Eric Sydell, an industrial psychologist and EVP of innovation at AI-powered hiring platform Modern Hire, agreed, saying that no one in the field joined “wanting to dehumanize the workforce.”

Sydell envisions AI apps enabling an “evolution of what a recruiter does.” He doesn’t think that apps, AI, or robots will replace recruiters—“People don’t want to work with robots, they want to work with humans”—but believes tech solutions will free up time for recruiters to get out from under paperwork and talk to actual human beings.

“Ultimately, what AI should be doing is churning through volumes of data that’s out there, and figuring out what it all means to help the humans make better quality decisions and to surface better candidates,” Sydell explained to HR Brew. “And then the human’s job becomes more to curate the people that are applying, and to maybe advertise the position. The recruiter will be a mouthpiece for the organization and provide candidates with information—they’re a human contact.”

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Rohrer predicts that automating human resource processes will help HR professionals avoid becoming overwhelmed. “It’s a very emotionally draining career to be in. A lot of HR folks end up with a high amount of burnout, because of the mental load and emotional labor required of being an HR professional.” Traditionally, HR talks to employees daily, one-on-one, and is forced to take on employees’ emotions “like a sponge.”

This is taxing and, in her opinion, counterproductive. She wants to invest in HR tools that allow her to stop “babysitting people” just to get a response to surveys. Her ideal app would automatically send out employee engagement surveys weekly and remind employees to complete them. She says she’d use the resulting data to determine where to invest her time.

“You don’t need to talk to every single person who works for your company, about every single element of their employment, one-to-one, face-to-face,” Rohrer argued. “But having the data allows you to see where the biggest pain points are, and where you do need to focus your energy.”

Side of skepticism. Experts admit that these scenarios are their hopes for the future. Sydell is worried the appification of HR could go awry.“My fear with the longer term future of AI is that it just starts to automate everything in this sort of hyper-efficient and cold way that leads to the dehumanization of the HR experience.”

Rohrer sees this happening already.

“AI and recruiting— I think it's a big mistake,” she said. Rohrer isn’t comfortable using automation where humans normally make judgments: “When it comes to things like resume screening, candidate evaluation, and performance management, like there's some elements of this that you just can't replace the human eye. And I think having AI and HR tech automation in resume screening leads to a lot of unintentional monoculture and lack of diversity.”

“[Tech is] not meant to completely replace us. [Apps are] meant to automate things that can be automated so that we can focus on the stuff that makes an even bigger impact on your day to day,” Rohrer said. In her view, AI in recruiting’s role in decision making swings too far toward the replacement side of the pendulum.

In pursuit of data used to make these decisions, employers often take a “more is more” approach to collecting employee (and applicant) data. This enthusiasm alone could be problematic if it allows for overreach.

Sydell pointed to a recent example of a call center in Colombia pushing employees to accept invasive at-home video surveillance as an example of what could go wrong if companies go too far in their pursuit of employee data.

“That’s not acceptable in any way, shape, or form,” Sydell said. “And I think we have to be very careful to try to put a stop to that sort of monitoring that is invasive and is certainly just beyond the pale of how we want our future lives to be.”

To keep apps more helpful than harmful, Sydell said it’s “inevitable that we will see more legislation” auditing AI. He called NYC’s recent bill requiring vendors of AI hiring tech to acquire annual third-party audits a “great start.” Others agree.

“AI is currently in its infancy and because it is designed by human beings, it perpetuates many decisions that can be rooted in bias. As its use expands, so does its potential harm,”

Arthur Woods, the co-founder of Mathison, a venture-backed diversity-hiring tech platform, told HR Brew. “We believe that by 2027, there will be a more widespread culture of accountability with regard to how we ethically harness AI to ensure we are not doing more harm than good.”

Another tricky issue could be helping employees disconnect when HR lives in their phones. HR Brew asked experts how HR apps piling up on work and personal devices would impact employees’ work-life balance. Gillian French, the expert in residence for employee experience at WorkVivo, an asynchronous virtual workplace platform, said employees need to “set boundaries.”

“I think we have to take responsibility as people to turn off notifications and alerts that will distract us and use the technology in the right way so that it doesn’t drain us and it doesn’t feel intrusive,” French told HR Brew.

This could be easier said than done. During the pandemic, employees reported working longer hours, in part due to the erosion of boundaries between work and home life. In Portugal, the country’s parliament created “right to rest” legislation, banning employer texts outside of an employee’s regular working hours.

Bottom line: Five years will, in French’s estimation, “likely fly by.” Apps will not replace HR professionals in that time, but the tech they increasingly rely on will only get more powerful. Whether they become a tool to replicate French’s feeling of “walking the floor” remotely or become an unintentional source of bias will require careful vision.

“It can be dehumanizing, and it can lead to bias if you’re not careful in how you develop these tools,” Sydell warned. “It’s a powerful technology. Look, nuclear technology can be used to bomb a country or can be used to power a country. And so it’s how you control it, how you apply it.”—SV

Do you work in HR or have information about your HR department we should know? Contact Susanna Vogel via the encrypted messaging app Telegram (@SusannaVogel) or simply email [email protected].

from our sponsor

Don’t let turnover take over. Instead, identify and reduce the turnover risks in your organization with Workday’s handy report: The Great Regeneration. That’s a pretty fitting title, if you ask us. With insight from over 190 million (!) employee survey responses, this report can help you understand what employees want by industry + region, how to collect feedback and uncover challenges, and how to spot those damaging attrition signs asap. Read it here.

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