Automation in the workplace is one of the central topics of our age. Here's what HR leaders need to know about the future of their profession.

Automation in the workplace is one of the central topics of our age. If you're already employed, you might wonder whether your job will one day be executed by a bot. If you're just entering the workforce, you'll question whether your intended career will still be viable 20 years from now. If you're raising kids, it can be hard to steer them toward the right career path in such an uncertain environment.

While no one can predict how this will all play out, we can look at the trends and make informed assumptions. One point to note is that "high-touch" professions like physical therapy, hairdressing and plumbing are less likely to be replaced by machines than jobs that involve repetitive motions or data entry. The other occupational hedge against automation is creativity: If your job involves creating something from the ground up, then it's less likely that a machine will take it over.

What does this mean in the world of HR professionals? Career longevity hinges on emotional intelligence and creativity.

Personality Matters

An ambitious research project led by University of Houston psychologist Rodica Ioana Damian followed Americans for 50 years and found that "people who were more intelligent, mature, and interested in arts and sciences in adolescence selected into jobs that had a lower probability of computerization," according to Pacific Standard Magazine.

The research project used data from Project Talent, a study that began in 1960. Project Talent tracked more than 440,000 ninth- to 12th-graders and measured cognitive ability and a personality inventory in which the students graded themselves on sociability, maturity, sensitivity and leadership.

One finding was that students who showed "higher levels of maturity and extroversion, higher interests in arts and sciences, and lower interests in things and people, tended to select—or be selected—into less-computerizable jobs." The reason was that such students were more likely to gravitate toward professions that involved routine tasks with the help of an office machine. Many of those jobs have already been automated.

Effect on HR Jobs

For HR careers, the same calculus applies. As a recent column in HR Daily Advisor noted, HR jobs that involve repetitive tasks like data collection and data processing run a strong risk of being automated. But tasks that require creativity, problem-solving and decision-making will still need human workers.

Ideally, automation will be a boon to such workers. According to HR Daily Advisor, research from McKinsey shows that HR execs making $200,000 or more spend up to 30 percent of their time collecting and processing data. If that work were automated, those workers could focus more on demanding tasks, making them increasingly valuable to the company.

The same could be said for other aspects of HR work, including responding to HR inquiries (which could be handled by a chatbot) or recruitment and retention (which can be aided by machine learning). Data analytics can also uncover bias-based payment discrepancies.

Like other occupations, HR is likely to be redefined by the growing trend of automation in the workplace. It's clear that while the prediction of all jobs being taken over by machines is off base, it's true that some jobs will. Others will be recast to focus on reading emotions, conveying empathy and synthesizing disparate data to find new solutions — things that humans do best, in other words.

Stay up-to-date on the latest workforce trends and insights for HR leaders: subscribe to our monthly e-newsletter.

Tags: Automation