Companies want HR automation, but humans still have a role

The 'human' component of human resources will not go away, despite rapid uptake of HR automation tools.
18 October 2021

(Photo by Frederic J. BROWN / AFP)

Human resources (HR) automation tools are becoming increasingly sought after today in any organization of a certain size, where the changing work conditions of employees since the pandemic has only motivated its adoption. In the past, most HR processes needed to be manually completed. This includes onboarding processes for new employees, vetting through numerous resumes for new hires, as well as dealing with employee data.

For employees, applications for leave and such need to be manually applied and approved. Paper printouts used to be high for this purpose, with important documents manually signed off and verified by senior executives and managers.

Thankfully, technology is changing legacy tedious processes. Plenty of manual HR processes are now being automated thanks to various emerging HR tools that are not only reducing the use of paper, but also streamlining and simplifying processes for both employers and employees.

Interestingly, technology is also solving more challenging processes in HR thanks to AI as well today. Companies are automating the onboarding process through the use of AI while machine learning tools can measure KPI outcomes for employees while providing actionable insights to employers. Automated reports are also enabling HR employees to focus on more important work.

PWC reports that HR technology has a US$148 billion market valuation, especially with new startups providing solutions to the growing ecosystem. The PWC HR Technology Survey 2020 showed that talent acquisition tools, employee experience portals, skills career mapping, intelligent recruiting, and robotic process automation are among the popular solutions being sought after.

Most of these solutions have eased procedures and workloads for HR department, but have also raised concerns about the sort of jobs that will be available as these technologies replace certain roles within the talent and recruitment field.

In fact findings from Skynova, an HR application provider, showed that a whopping 86% of HR professionals feel their jobs may be automated eventually, with nearly 3 in 10 surveyed HR professionals saying it’s very or extremely likely. Skynova surveyed 176 HR professionals to rate the effectiveness of AI’s prescribed solutions to complex employee issues. 

The survey also showed that a third (34%) of HR professionals think AI would be capable of providing quick responses for more mundane, less complex HR requests — but not intricate employee issues. For example in the lowest-scoring response, AI told a worker complaining of lack of support when they prioritize their children during work hours to “just suck it up and get their work done”.

Swelling use of HR automation

With HR technology seemingly becoming more affordable during this time frame, more organizations are beginning to wonder if they really need an HR department anymore. With solutions available for almost every HR task, what else is left for employees in the department to do?

And this is where mental health comes into the picture. One of the biggest limitations of AI is that it is still unable to measure mental health. AI works primarily on the data it has. The data is analyzed to produce a pattern which the AI uses to make decisions and such.

However, employees are not machines. They take breaks, and do need time off for emotional and physical wellbeing. While AI can schedule breaks in a timetable, it’s unable to comprehend the range of emotions a human employee goes through. As the example mentioned above, the AI would only focus on ensuring the task is completed.

This is why 1 in 3 HR professionals say that while automation could help streamline requests and help them prioritize their work, 41% believe that automation would pose a legal risk for companies. In the past year, HR professionals said issues involving employee physical and mental health were the most commonplace — along with issues pertaining to pay, another thing AI is still unable to deal with adequately.

Using a GPT-3 AI, Skynova prompted the AI with a wide variety of questions and situations. The AI’s responses to employee issues over company pay or salary, not to mention issues with company benefits or culture, were not so well received by HR professionals. Issues with employee benefits and pay are likely to be exacerbated by the post-covid business world, also HR professionals seemed critical over GPT-3’s response to competitive pay.

GPT-3 responses related to COVID-19 vaccinations achieved the fifth-lowest score, and considering the current climate created by the return to work and some reticence to vaccines, this issue would likely be a risky situation to attempt to automate.

For HR professionals, emotional intelligence is very important in HR and is key in offering an appropriate response to more human issues. It would seem that even though some of the responses generated by AI were scored relatively high, with the liabilities it poses, the juice might not necessarily be worth the squeeze.

With that said, humans are still a valuable asset in the HR department. While HR automation solutions may ease away most tasks, employees still prefer to communicate with people instead of a machine.