Technology was already rapidly transforming the workplace when the COVID-19 pandemic struck amid an especially divisive election year and monumental social upheaval. The workplace, suffice to say, will never be the same.
“We have been shot through the COVID accelerator,” says Erica Orange, executive vice president and chief operating officer of The Future Hunters, a New York City-based consulting firm. “Everything is moving faster now.”
What changes lie ahead? HR Magazine asked futurists, human resource leaders and business experts to peer into their crystal balls and predict how the tumult of 2020 would lead to either new or reformulated jobs in 2025. One forecast is certain: Chief human resource officers will be busy. Many of the positions will be employee-centric and could become part of the HR department, further elevating and expanding its position in the corporate hierarchy.
“The HR role is going to be a multidisciplinary job to help redesign the workplace,” says Josh Bersin, a longtime HR industry analyst and founder of the eponymous HR academy in Oakland, Calif. “Every year, HR was becoming more of a business consulting function. Things like [employee] well-being and health used to be benefits, but now they’re part of the CEO-level business strategy.”
Bersin and other industry experts have identified the following key areas, with resulting new jobs and traditional roles destined for change over the next five years.
Health and Safety
COVID-19 turned a spotlight on worker health and safety in all industries—not just those known for being dangerous—as even people who sat at computers all day landed in intensive care units. Employees who have returned to their workplaces wear masks, sanitize surfaces and practice social distancing. Some even submit to temperature checks. The likelihood of more pandemics will keep employers focused on health and safety, so all those precautions are likely to give way to workplaces with testing protocols, state-of-the-art ventilation systems and high-tech disinfecting apparatus.
Concerns extend beyond employees’ physical health. The pandemic, the recession and the social unrest of 2020 have caused increased anxiety, depression and stress among the general population. Employers had been increasing their mental health benefits before the pandemic and are now stepping up even more.
This is all unfolding amid a climate crisis that was already pushing companies to develop healthier, more-sustainable business practices.
‘The physical location drives so much of the employee experience. How are you going to mirror that for those who don’t come into the office?’
A vast majority of business executives—83 percent—said they expect to hire more people for health and safety roles within the next two years, according to a report by consulting firm McKinsey & Co. It’s the sector that’s predicted to have the most hiring.
Three universities now offer graduate certificate programs in Total Worker Health, and another offers a doctoral program in this relatively new field, which combines information from numerous specialties to address all elements of an employee’s well-being. Another graduate certificate is offered in Workplace Health Promotion with an emphasis on total worker health. The curricula were put together in part using competencies developed by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in concert with key academic leaders.
A possible new HR role:
Integrated health and wellness administrator. This person will manage a slate of programs, benefits and equipment to protect employees’ mental and physical health and safety. The team will include experts in areas such as health and life insurance, architecture, and emergency services to create a holistic approach to employee well-being.
A likely expanded role:
Chief sustainability officer. The title already exists at many firms and responsibilities vary, with some practitioners only making sure the company complies with environmental laws and meets basic standards. But as health becomes a corporate priority, the role’s importance will balloon. This executive will examine how the company’s actions affect its workers, suppliers, customers and communities through an environmental prism. “That will all be tied back to the business strategy,” says Anthony Abbatiello, global head of Leadership & Succession consulting at Russell Reynolds Associates, a New York City-based executive search and consulting firm.
There has been endless debate about how working from home has affected employee productivity and morale, with agreement on one issue: More workers will be remote even after the pandemic ends. Employers now realize that people can perform their jobs from home and that organizations can save mightily by letting go of pricey office space. This creates a need for someone to manage a workforce where some people report to the office, some stay home and others toggle between the two. Who might handle that?
Director of remote work. Responsibilities of this role would include developing strategies and tools to keep the business running, no matter where employees are located, and coaching managers on how to adjust to the new structure. One key will be creating analytics that monitor productivity to catch and fix problems. Facebook advertised for the role in the late summer after CEO Mark Zuckerberg said 50 percent of the company could be working from home permanently within the next five to 10 years.
Remote culture keeper. Work-from-home proponents highlight how companies can broaden their talent pools exponentially when they’re not limited by geography. A Boston-based tech company could hire a coder in Bogota, while a writer in Wyoming can work for a firm in Wales. That’s great, but how can far-flung workers feel like they’re part of the same team and the overall company?
“The physical location drives so much of the employee experience,” says Brian Kropp, group vice president and head of the HR practice at Gartner Research, a Stamford, Conn.-based advisory firm. “How are you going to mirror that for those who don’t come into the office?”
Quite possibly by hiring a tech-savvy creative thinker with excellent communication skills to keep everyone in the loop while finding ways to develop personal bonds.
Trust and Purpose
Social unrest and political divisions have been surging. The deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Jacob Blake and others at the hands of police officers have spurred massive protests and forced employers to acknowledge the lack of diversity in their hierarchies. At the same time, many of the front-line workers during the pandemic have been minorities risking their lives for minimum wage, further highlighting inequity in the business world and society overall.
There have also been strikes and demonstrations about workplace safety conditions at companies such as McDonald’s and Amazon.
Even before the pandemic, employees were questioning their companies’ actions, sometimes prompting employers to shift gears. Google, for example, declined to extend a military contract to analyze drone videos after employees complained about how the technology created was being used.
On top of that, there is growing unease surrounding just how much companies know about their employees thanks to social media, computer tracking and security systems. Workers are also providing more information on their health and families as they negotiate ways to work safely during the pandemic. That has led to increased concerns about how all this data will be used and protected.
“We have realized that tech is turning into Frankenstein’s monster,” says Benjamin Pring, vice president and managing director of the Center for the Future of Work at Cognizant, a Teaneck, N.J.-based tech consulting firm. “It’s out of control. Can we create new rules of the road or do we wind up in some George Orwell scenario?”
This is all happening against a backdrop of suspicion and mistrust in a deeply divided country. How can companies breed trust in such an environment? Presumably there’s already a chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer, so who else is necessary?
Trust, ethics and fairness principal. Companies have compliance officers and lawyers to ensure that they stay within the bounds of the law. Is that enough? Consider an organization that’s deciding between two employees for a promotion. Security cameras show that one always leaves earlier than the other. Is it ethical to use that information? Some companies are giving parents time off to help their children with schoolwork during the pandemic. Is that fair to childless employees? These are some of the dilemmas this new executive would resolve, according to Kropp, who adds that this individual could also help determine what’s appropriate when collecting, using and storing employee data.
“We would all be better off if we could figure out ways and where to be more transparent,” Kropp says.
Chief purpose officer. This role was gaining traction before the pandemic. In 2019, the Business Roundtable released a new definition of a corporation that said a company’s purpose extends beyond making profits to considering how its actions affect all stakeholders, including employees, customers and suppliers. Someone needs to make sure the company’s business is aligned with that definition.
Algorithm bias finder. Algorithms are supposed to make work easier by solving problems. However, they’re developed by humans who have biases, and those preconceived beliefs—even unconscious ones—can affect an algorithm’s output. That means resumes may be ignored or loan applications denied, actions that can carry serious consequences. The person in this role must test algorithms for biases and correct any that have been found. Earlier this year, Google announced it would help clients determine how to use artificial intelligence ethically, which includes instructions on how to mitigate bias in algorithms.
“Companies may have to defend these algorithms in courts of law and courts of public opinion,” Pring says.
Educational resilience leader. Tech skills have shorter and shorter shelf lives. Executives increasingly say they want to hire people with soft skills—sometimes called “power skills”—such as problem-solving, empathy and communication. This person would determine the best ways to help employees learn such skills, demonstrating an extra level of investment to keep workers employed that they are bound to appreciate. Earlier this year, for example, Novartis International AG, a Basel, Switzerland-based pharmaceutical maker, offered its employees a series of webinars on different aspects of curiosity.
Skills master. With the rapid transformation of the workplace, how do you keep up with the latest trends and technology? Do you hire new people, train existing staff or outsource the operation? Should you set up an office in a tech hub? Upskill in-house or send workers to outside schools? Someone needs to find the answers to these critical business questions as the workplace evolves.
Lisa Bodell, founder and chief executive of New York City-based consulting firm FutureThink, believes that individuals will be increasingly defined by their skills. She envisions a workplace where, instead of being part of set teams, individuals will be chosen for projects based on their skills. “Organizations are going to be much more flat,” she says. “Companies will have an internal gig economy where people will rotate around more.”
The accelerating adoption of new technologies in human resources, made more urgent by the coronavirus pandemic, is changing the skills, roles and jobs that will be needed in the future. Experts predict that some of these roles will be folded into broader HR jobs, while others will require stand-alone job titles, especially in larger organizations.
Chief HR Technology Optimization Officer
Rhonda Marcucci, HR and benefits technology consulting practice leader for Gallagher, an advisory firm in Chicago, says an HR tech optimization officer role is needed because of the burgeoning technology platforms used in HR departments and the growing adoption of software-as-a-service (SAAS) technologies.
Marcucci says it’s not uncommon these days for HR to have 15 or more technology platforms operating under its umbrella, serving varied needs such as core employee recordkeeping, recruiting, benefits administration, learning, performance management and more. Handling multiple platforms requires stronger governance and oversight than was typical in HR departments of the past.
“The right hand often doesn’t know what the left is doing, and that poor communication can lead to redundancies, unnecessary costs and other problems,” Marcucci says. “HR needs a dedicated technology leader to ensure all of those systems are properly selected, optimized and integrated where needed.”
A chief HR technology optimization officer also would serve as the point person to ensure that frequent software updates released by SAAS vendors are tested, configured and maximized for their new functionality. “The vendor community isn’t always good at helping clients understand what SAAS upgrades are and how best to take advantage of them,” Marcucci says. “So what ends up happening is people simply don’t use the update.”
A recent survey of 400 organizations by Gallagher found that more than two-thirds of HR functions use less than 75 percent of the features and functions available in their technology platforms.
A big component of the technology optimization job would be to increase employee adoption of HR technologies. Investing in shiny new recruiting, performance management or learning technologies is one thing, but convincing employees who are set in their ways to use the new systems is quite another.
Experience Engineering Specialist
Experts say this role will help to improve the technology experience for HR’s customers: the employees. Michael Rochelle, chief strategy officer and principal human capital management analyst for the Brandon Hall Group, an HR advisory and research firm in Delray Beach, Fla., says the job could focus on helping build HR websites, portals, apps and employee self-service tools that are user-friendly and efficient.
“There’s a need for more people in HR who really understand software because systems in the function are becoming more sophisticated,” Rochelle says. “The world is moving toward 100 percent Web-based HR support, and HR needs to operate like a services organization in terms of treating employees like customers. That means digital HR should be very intuitive and efficient for the workforce to use.”
Data Science Manager
Organizational leaders are increasingly asking CHROs to take a more evidence-based and data-driven approach when making decisions, experts say, creating a need for more data science and analytics expertise in HR departments. “HR needs to either reskill existing staff or hire specialists who can perform statistical analysis and predictive analytics at a high level,” Rochelle says. “That need will only grow in the future.”
Jeanne Meister, founding partner of Future Workplace, an HR advisory, research and membership firm in New York City, says the data science manager or data detective would oversee the mining and analysis of people data from multiple sources in the organization to extract actionable insights for leaders.
“The data detective role is the next step for forward-looking companies that have increasingly been hiring or developing people with computer science and analytics skills in HR,” Meister says. “It will be their job to sift through data from employee surveys, recruiting platforms, benefits portals and other HR systems to draw conclusions that help solve pressing business problems.”
For example, an analysis of all employees who have been at the company for three to five years and are highly rated can help determine the best sources of hire by researching how each of those employees found out about their jobs initially, applied and were evaluated. Then, those recruitment efforts can be replicated moving forward.
AI ‘Chaperone’ and Chatbot Coach
The growing use of bots to handle tasks within HR also requires new skills and knowledge in humans, according to experts. Meister says the blended workforce is no longer defined by full-time employees working alongside contract and gig workers, but rather by humans using automated programs—bots—to improve efficiency and save time.
She identifies one future role as “chatbot coach,” a human recruiter who ensures that recruiting processes involving bots don’t discriminate against job candidates, and that bots effectively answer applicants’ relevant questions and treat candidates humanely.
“Human recruiters will be trained in how to work with the bots on their recruiting teams, including deciding which tasks to outsource to the bot [and] making the bot aware of changes in job specs or new types of questions arriving from job candidates,” Meister says. “Creating this new role represents the natural next step for early adopters of artificial intelligence in HR.”
Dave Zielinski is a freelance business writer and editor in Minneapolis.
The pandemic pushed the shift to adopt digital and automated solutions into overdrive as travel and in-person meetings disappeared overnight. The McKinsey study found that 85 percent of companies accelerated the digitization of their businesses while another 67 percent sped up their use of automation and artificial intelligence. Nearly 70 percent of executives say they plan to hire more people for automation roles, while 45 percent expect to increase hiring for positions including digital learning and agile working.
“There is still a need for human intervention even as these devices and artificial intelligence get smarter and smarter,” Abbatiello says. Those roles may include:
Robot manager. Businesses ranging from hospitals to retailers are using more robots to perform simple tasks and avoid human contact during the pandemic. San Diego-based Brain Corp. said use of its robots by U.S. retailers surged 24 percent in the second quarter of 2020 compared to the prior year period, as companies used the machines to clean stores. Robots need a keeper to ensure that they’re operating properly and to fix any problems.
Chatbot chief. The need for customer service representatives exploded during the pandemic as people adjusted to the new reality by going online to order everything from toilet paper to upgraded Internet service. IBM reportedly witnessed a surge in demand for its chatbot-powering technology from companies needing more customer service bandwidth. Someone must oversee this area of corporate growth.
‘We have been shot through the COVID accelerator. Everything is moving faster now.’
Director of virtual and augmented reality. The idea of simulating environments has grown more popular as in-person meetings have been deemed either impossible or too risky. As the business world settles into a “new normal,” more companies are expected to explore how these technologies can transform everything from training to telemedicine to team-building events for remote staff. Boston-based financial firm Fidelity Investments sent virtual reality headsets to new employees to participate in various team-building exercises, according to The Wall Street Journal. An innovative, visually attuned, creative individual will find ways to incorporate this flexible technology into an organization.
New Business Opportunities
Three more roles experts think may emerge:
Health Security Agency czar. Pring predicts that the U.S. government will create a Health Security Agency to address future pandemics just as it developed the Transportation Security Administration after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. This function will require broad-based knowledge and superior management skills to oversee teams of scientists, engineers, technicians, coders and guards.
Total home and family security consultant. The combination of the recession, the pandemic, wildfires and social unrest left many American families feeling besieged in 2020. Employees might welcome experts who look at their family’s circumstances and develop strategies to help individuals feel more secure. Services could include help in selecting alarm systems, building a financial portfolio to withstand wild market swings and developing an emergency evacuation plan.
Home office consultants. The kitchen table just won’t cut it after a while. This advisor would recommend furniture, equipment and even soundproofing to customize a home office that fits into a prescribed space and budget.
Theresa Agovino is the workplace editor for SHRM.