Out-Law News

4IR warning over unequal impact of tech changes

Amy Hextell tells HRNews how the introduction of technological changes can impact unequally on staff


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  • Transcript

    The Fourth Industrial Revolution is building, and the government needs a strategy to prepare for the changes ahead. That is the message from the Work and Pensions Committee which comes with a warning, that workplace changes in technology could have an unequal impact on different groups of workers. That’s because the creation and loss of employment will be disproportionate across sectors. The Committee says the government must be more proactive in planning ahead to avoid people being excluded from jobs and worker protections. 

    This is the report published last week calling on the government to develop a comprehensive long-term strategy on how it will prepare for changes in the world of work brought about by the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The Committee concludes that whilst it’s not likely that new technology and automation will lead to mass unemployment, the creation of new jobs and loss of others will be uneven across sectors and across different groups of workers. They say the government must ensure that any changes do not exacerbate existing inequalities, with younger people, disabled people, women, and people from ethnic minorities particularly at risk of missing out on jobs. 

    So that’s the Committee’s message to the government but clearly this is something which employers need to be aware of. Amy Hextell has been helping a number of clients who are increasingly turning to technology in their businesses and are aware of the impact these changes can have on staff. Amy joined me from Birmingham to discuss the report:

    Amy Hextell: “The report is, I think, really interesting and very important in highlighting that with technological change there are going to be both positive and negative consequences to consider and clearly the report is setting out that the government needs to develop a sustainable strategy that takes that into account when preparing for these changes. It does make a number of really interesting observations and whilst it's a report that calls the government to arms in that respect, from an employer perspective, I think that there is a lot employers can be doing in response to this as well. To talk through some of the observations that that stood out to me from the report, for example, there's a recognition that the development of assistive technology has got the potential to decrease the disability employment gap which is very large at the moment, so it’s great from that perspective, but that also many people that are disabled themselves, and certainly employers, are not aware of what's on offer already, and the cost of providing assistive technology is often a barrier as well. So, the report recommends that the government brings together technology companies, entrepreneurs and employers to improve knowledge uptake and availability of assistive technology and that, I think, is something that certainly those employers in the technology, media and communications sector, can be looking at becoming frontrunners in, but really all employers can be thinking now about how assistive technology might be able to be used to their advantage and to help them employ people who are disabled and help decrease that disability employment gap.”

    Joe Glavina: “Another interesting finding is the impact on women and how they might be disadvantaged when these changes are made. So, for example, women are more likely than men to be in the jobs which are at high risk of being lost to automation.”

    Amy Hextell: “It’s difficult, I think, because there are also studies that have suggested that automation will actually create more jobs than it causes to be lost and particularly those new jobs will be in healthcare, which is a female dominated profession, and in professional, scientific and technical services. So, there are new opportunities that could be created for women, but I think the important thing for government, but also for employers in regard to that, is that is that, again, more needs to be done to support women in particular going into, and staying in, careers in science, engineering, technology and maths. There is similar research suggesting that those from minority ethnic backgrounds are also more likely to be impacted by the risk of automation because they're employed in sectors at higher risk of that and, in any event, there is still a higher proportion of ethnic minority people who are unemployed in general but, again, there's some nuances to this. So, it's a reminder really of the reason why we can't simply focus on race, ethnicity, or nationality as one all-encompassing factor. The report distinguished that those from a Pakistani and Bangladeshi background are at more risk of losing their jobs to automation than those who are from the Chinese or Indian background because they're typically involved in sectors which are at lower risk. So, to mitigate the risk I think employers should be encouraged to focus on upskilling those from minority ethnic backgrounds in particular so that they develop skills which enable them to be in positions which are less at risk. Then importantly, and we've seen a lot of this off the back of the Black Lives Matter movement last year and the murder of George Floyd, a lot has been done around talking about race and ethnicity in the workplace but there's lots more work that employers can be doing to break down institutionalised bias which prevents those from  a minority ethnic background getting into those roles, or sectors that are at a lower risk of being impacted negatively by technological change. So, there's lots in the report, it makes really interesting reading, there are other sections that focus on the impact on young people and those with caring responsibilities, for example, but for employers I think it's a bit of a wake-up call and, as I said at the start, whilst the report focuses on recommendations for government, really employers can be doing lots to respond to this too. I think that's through the use of assistive technology, exploring that more, upskilling their employees, companies in the tech sector in particular or those in STEM sectors, getting ahead of this and being seen as leaders in this field which means that, coming out of all of this, they could actually be seen as employees of choice and they've got an opportunity to really shine and create positive change off the back of this.”

    Joe Glavina: “This feels very much like a culture change for employers, so an important role for HR?”

    Amy Hextell: “I think HR plays a critical role here actually in helping employers respond to the challenge, but also to embrace the opportunities that this technological change and Fourth Industrial Revolution presents. I think part of the difficulty is it is quite a step change that's going to be required and there can often be resistance either from the individuals affected or constraints in terms of people's time, resource, money and that sort of thing that put in to affecting these changes. I think actually, what will really help HR convince, if that's not too strong a word, senior stakeholders to get on board with this is the pandemic actually, and although we don't want to keep going on about it necessarily, the fact that we've all had to deal with lots of uncertainty, lots of change, the use of technology has become more important than ever over the last 12 to 18 months and I think that will help demonstrate that, actually, workforces are adaptable, can be flexible, and that nothing is impossible. So, HR teams, I think, have a really important role in communicating the importance of this. I think when it comes to making the change, and it starting to have an impact on those on the ground, there’s a need for HR to be involved, perhaps, with communications teams as well because in some cases there will be big changes and they may have a detrimental impact on those groups who are disadvantaged unless real work is done to put in place support measures, and the language and tone of communications around this subject is really important. When employers have moved from everybody having their own desk into hot desking, which is a much less large change that we're talking about here, but quite often that was met with resistance, and it was more about encouraging people to get behind it through the use of correct tone, correct language and supportive measures rather than there being a more dictatorial approach to it. So, I think that that showing the benefits of the change and showing that you're investing time energy and resource into supporting this change, is something that's essential and something that HR will be heavily involved in.”

    The full report by the Department of Work and Pensions report on preparations for changes in the world of work is available now from the government’s website. We have put a link to it in the transcript of this programme.

    - Link to Department of Work and Pensions report on preparations for changes in the world of work


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