How HR leaders can engage, retain employees in the world of automation

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Between the push toward employee engagement surveys and better perks and benefits, author and workplace researcher Jacob Morgan posits that the employee experience should have improved over the past few decades.

It hasn’t.

“Most organizations view [employee engagement efforts] as an adrenaline shot,” he said at the Oracle HCM World conference in Dallas on Tuesday. “Employee engagement is not the cause of something. It’s the outcome of something,” noting that smart employers are successfully engaging workers by embracing technology, building a strong culture and creating efficient physical workplaces for employees.

Amidst changing technological advances and tight labor markets, companies are a turning point for how they choose to engage and retain employees.

Morgan, the author of The Employee Experience Advantage (2017), sat down with Employee Benefit News to discuss best practices for retaining employees by leveraging AI and people strategies. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Employee Benefit News: In your keynote presentation, you spoke about professional services firm Accenture automating 10,000 jobs but choosing to upskill those workers rather than eliminating those positions. What other companies are leveraging AI to enhance and augment, rather than replace, the workforce?

Jacob Morgan: We’re seeing companies that are trying to replace workers, and we’re also seeing companies augment workers. The companies that augment workers are the ones that are going to win. If a company is very conscientious and purposeful about replacing people, people won’t want to work there, it’s going to get a bad reputation [and] customers won’t necessarily want to purchase from that brand. Companies that purely try to replace workers with bots are going to struggle. They might not necessarily go out of business because they’ll still be productive, they’ll still make money, but they’re not going to grow, they’re not going to expand.

Look at Amazon. Amazon replaced tens of thousands of jobs with little bots, but at the same time Amazon is opening a second headquarters. They’ve created hundreds of thousands of new jobs because they keep getting into new products, new services, new geographies, and they’re using the automation of workers in one area to grow massively. I think that’s the right approach.

EBN: What are best practices for employers?

Morgan: It’s looking at where you can upskill your employees. It’s about what can bots do, but it’s also being mindful and conscientious and empathetic to the employees that currently have those jobs and being aware of what other jobs those employees can do.

Evian, the bottling company, had a lot of employees inside their manufacturing plant basically drive around the trucks and deliver bottles. Now, all of that stuff got automated. Those employees had to be shifted [and] pilot the automated shuttles. They sit in command centers so they’re still kind of in a similar space but their jobs are different. Evian made a conscious decision of saying, “OK, if we automate these jobs what else can these workers do? Where else can those skills be applied?”

Be responsible. If you replace in one area, think about how you can help those employees.

EBN: Do you see companies approaching technology in a nuanced way? We’re still seeing a big push for companies to buy into AI.

Morgan: Some companies are very swept up in AI. They’re just very technology obsessed and I don’t think they do necessarily a good enough job of knowing why they need AI. Of course the first step is understanding why you need the technology: what are you planning to do with it, what are the areas you’re looking to improve with it, how is it going to impact people, and what are you going to do to support those people? As a leader, if you’re bringing in technology, [you need to know that] employees are going to be freaked out. It’s their livelihood; they have kids, they have mortgages. Think about it as if you were getting automated. What would you want your organization to do?

EBN: You mentioned benefits as something people have and are supposed to drive employee engagement but doesn’t necessarily do that.

Morgan: For me, when I think of benefits, I think of things that the organization gives to employees to get them to work there, but it’s not necessarily anything to do with the workplace practices. You might get great health insurance, free food and stuff like that, [but] employees eventually get used to a lot of these things. When another organization comes along that offers the same types of benefits or better benefits, they’re going to jump ship. They don’t feel like they’re making an impact, they don’t care about having their voice heard, they don’t care about growth, they’re just there because they’re getting things from you. So when they stop getting those things or when they get better things elsewhere, they’re going to leave.

If you bring a lot of your executives together, I don’t think the goal should be, “How are we going to give employees the best benefits in the world so they stay here forever?”. I think instead it should be, “How are we going to create this organization where employees really want to show up? How are we going to make them feel good and empowered? How are we going to give them great tools that they use during the day? How are we going to create beautiful spaces? And on top of that, how are we also going to give them some great benefits so they can feel like they’re being taken care of?”

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Employee retention HR Technology Employee turnover Employee engagement Employee communications Employee relations