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Keeping the human at the centre of an AI-powered workplace: HRPA conference

Conversations around automation and artificial intelligence are eclipsing the existing challenges in the workplace related to, for instance, work-life balance, employee burnout and management of remote work, said Jim Love, chief information officer at IT World Canada, during a panel at the HRPA conference.

“AI is sucking all the oxygen out of the room in terms of the discussion, and that’s fair because it is a real force. What it will do to the workforce is unquestionably going to be very dramatic,” he said. “But it’s not the only thing happening out there. We had no shortage of problems before this.”

Love was joined by Lisa Taylor, president and founder of Challenge Factory, a research and consultancy firm focusing on the future of work, and moderator Thomas Wardman, vice president, information technology and operations, HRPA.

Taylor argued that there’s a lot to focus on beyond AI when a company is organizing for the future of work, including the demographics and longevity of the workforce, career ownership, flexible work models, the emergence of platform-based work models like Uber or Airbnb, and finally, automation and the consequent potential job losses, gains, and more.

“Really, the future of work is human. Work is a human activity. So technology can enable work, but if we’re talking about the future of work, we have to be talking about human beings,” said Taylor. “Otherwise, we’re talking about the future of tech enabling work, and that’s a great topic, but it’s a different topic.”

Conversations around diversity, inclusion, and equity are as essential, the panelists concurred, stressing that there has been an honest attempt to embrace diversity.

“Over their careers, people have developed, and we’re bringing out the best in people in management,” said Love. “They’re trying to embrace diversity, but at the same time, they’re somewhat frustrated or confused by how to make the change.”

Diversity metrics and reports are helpful to track the progress a company has made, but they often run the risk that the metric itself becomes the goal, explained Taylor.

“When we’re focused on the report as the goal, it means that we’re going to do the surface level stuff that may or may not get us a good report, but definitely will not advance how much we mature in our understanding of being diverse workplaces as well as if we actually took a hard and honest look, and really look from the ground up of how we can do better,” said Taylor.

Technology can also be the very tool to foster DEI, Love said. He explained that generative AI caught on so much because it finally allowed us to have a conversation with a system.

“Friends who emigrated to Canada, and while they have great English, they’re not as comfortable in some areas,” he noted. “But to be able to get stuff in their own dialect, their own language instantly from an AI because you interact with the machine – it doesn’t care what language you speak, it will speak back to you in your own language.”

AI is also getting better, he added, in the sense that it can be trained on smaller, curated models. Additionally, the ability for AI to create data is promising, because it allows you to create data that is less biased.

Finally, a key reminder when having conversations about DEI, Love noted, is that “we have to look at each other as humans first and then explore the dimensions, because as you get to know people, you’ll get to know that they will find the commonality rather than the things that make us different.”

He continued, “I think we have to give people the opportunity to experience the depth. And when we put labels on people of any side, even if they’re the labels of prejudice or privilege, I think we make mistakes.”

Having full diversity in the workplace is also allowing for diversity of thought, Taylor said, so that people who think differently or come from different backgrounds are comfortable having productive discussions.

“We have to learn to have discussions with people we don’t agree with,” Love said, “because otherwise we’re in this echo chamber which social media has done to us, where we always stay with our tribe, in our group, and we tell people how righteous we are.” Encountering people you do not agree with and finding common ground as humans, he concluded, is key.

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