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Nita Clarke OBE: What's the connection between new workplace technologies and employment relations?

Wednesday 14 June 2017

Nita Clarke OBE, discusses the impact and implications of using technology in the workplace.

Nita Clarke OBE Nita Clarke OBE

Nita Clarke OBE is the Director of the Involvement and Participation Association (IPA), Britain's leading organisation delivering workplace support for good employment and industrial relations.

She was vice-chair of the MacLeod Review on employee engagement and continues to work with David MacLeod on the new national Employee Engagement task force, launched by Prime Minister David Cameron in March 2011.

From driverless cars to IBM's Watson supercomputer, it is clear that new technologies are set to transform many sectors of the economy. Governments around the world are grappling with the changing nature of work, as illustrated by the Matthew Taylor review of modern employment practices in the UK and the recent German government White Paper on "Work 4.0". It is interesting that Taylor's current thinking points to the need to promote "technology that benefits the workforce while ensuring a "level playing field" with other businesses".

The IPA is delighted to produce this new report 'pdf icon Mind Over Machines: New technology and employment relations [584kb]' for Acas. It looks in depth for the first time at the connection between technology and employment relations. While many studies have predicted the impact of automation on jobs lost in the economy, relatively little attention has been given to the impact on the vast majority of workers who remain in employment. Although most jobs may not be immediately threatened by automation, technology has had and will continue to have a major impact on the nature of work for almost all members of the UK workforce.

This work highlights the opportunities that new technology can offer the workplace - improved physical wellbeing, more productivity, more information and analysis to aid decision making and solve problems. However, it also points to some of the challenges that technology poses to workplace relations - threats to worker autonomy from new surveillance and command systems, the risk to employee mental health from a surfeit of electronic communications and the possibility of work intensification.

The report also makes clear the importance for all employers, throughout any programme of technological change, to consult with and listen to employee voice. Any new technology needs to be the right fit for the organisation and the workforce must be fully engaged on the change journey. Whenever new technology is imposed without employee involvement, the outcome for the organisation runs the risk of making ineffective use of the technology and a collapse in trust between management and the workers.

Although predictions vary as to the exact timescale, in the longer run we are likely to see increasing automation of jobs in many sectors of the economy. This is something that governments, employers and trade unions alike need to be proactive in preparing the workforce for. Large proportions of the working population will need to be reskilled and redeployed, to different functions within the same employers, or to different sectors of the economy altogether. Such a large-scale displacement of the workforce will take time to execute and could be catastrophic for the economy if not adequately planned and prepared in advance.

Nevertheless, however much automation takes place; human workers are going to be essential to the success of all businesses for the near future. While it is important that we embrace workplace technology to remain competitive, it is vital that we not lose sight of the essential human element of work. It is only through engagement between managers and workers that we will build good places to work that both combine human talent, creativity and innovation with a respect for the wellbeing of the workforce.

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