April 14, 2019

[Expert Insight] Why the Future of HR is Human

In 2014, the international consulting firm Roland Berger predicted that the European Union would lose some 1.5 million jobs by the year 2025. This stands in stark contrast to a 2017 report that predicted the creation of 21 million positions instead. While digitalisation, artificial intelligence and automation will undoubtedly eliminate jobs that primarily consist of repetitive tasks, these developments could actually also help reinvent certain careers by giving them new added-value.

Consider human resources. The technology revolution will not simply pass it by - recruitment, mobility, training and administration are already being radically overhauled by the power of big data and new market structures. The potential time and cost efficiency savings of these technologies have long been proven. At the same time, it is still difficult to imagine the HR departments of tomorrow being 100% automated.

However, HR executives are concerned about the effects of automation on their careers. In a pan-European survey conducted in 2017, 30% of HR professionals said they worried about technology automating tasks previously performed by people. Yet only 30% of them reporting in another European-wide survey by BCG believed that they were adequately preparing for the challenges of tomorrow’s labour market. Will the HR of tomorrow be prepared to face the challenges to come?

We should see modern innovation as an opportunity to redefine HR practices and build the skills needed to overcome the challenges of tomorrow. To better understand how HR departments can prepare for the future, let’s track the evolution of HR through the ages.

1. Blast from the Past: HR Through the Years

‘Personnel management’ is a relatively recent phenomenon. Stand-alone departments came about as recently as the 1920s and 30s, arising from a Taylorist approach focused on team performance and respect for regulations. Ever since, departments have been adapting, or rather reacting, to socio-economic change. In recent decades, we have seen three main phases in HR:


This first period marks a time when companies flourished and HR became more institutionalised. In the face of strong growth, the role of HR departments became critical to sharing and creating value, integrating the law into common business practice and forecasting jobs and skills.  

Post-1980s economic crisis:

Social policies, inflation and unemployment destabilised the role of HR. The sector pivoted to focus more on organisation, since the social aspect of jobs became more important. It started being seen less as a cost incurred by organisations and more as an investment in company growth. This was the birth of ‘human resources’ as we currently understand it.

From the end of the 20th  to the beginning of the 21st century:

The complexity of the 1990s - mergers, globalisation and social crises - led to the decentralisation of HR, particularly for managers. 2010 was a turning point. In this VUCA environment accelerated by technological innovation, HR departments have tried to become more agile, mirroring new, more collaborative and interdisciplinary approaches.

And thus today’s model was born, where innovation is driving a  more human outlook to HR. Indeed, 46% of HR professionals across the world say that culture development is now a key business issue and 58% say developing leadership capabilities is. Luckily, 86% feel that they actively support innovation within their organisations.

2. Technology: The Ultimate Liberator for HR?

According to Nick Horney, to really transform itself, HR needs to  confront 5 key barriers, which are experiential (becoming more strategic), cultural (taking on a role in change management), structural (operating less in silos), procedural (more skill-sharing) and technological (moving away from the HRIS mindset). Recent innovations in HR tech appear to be facilitating this liberation. Here’s how.


Jean-Michel Guillon, HR Director at Michelin, says that “tomorrow, thanks to AI, we’ll have the ability to target potential candidates much more easily”. Besides predictive capabilities, technology is already being used in HR to optimise time-consuming tasks like writing job ads, sourcing, filtering and messaging, using conversational chatbots, ‘sentiment analysis’ and even video facial recognition. Thus, recruiters are gaining more free time which in turns helps them focus on the candidate experience and key skills.


Digital learning offers a plethora of new learning formats and facilitates access to mobile learning, podcasts, MOOCs, SPOCs and huddle rooms designed for business communities. Employees feel more autonomous and become real stakeholders in their own development. Technology presents itself as an opportunity for HR teams to become more attentive and aware of different potential career paths for company members, which supports their overall development.


Digital technologies accelerate internal mobility by offering greater visibility and understanding to employees through online marketplaces. These allow employees to highlight their skills and express their professional goals, then match talent to open positions. If used optimally, advanced career customisation will keep pace with the increasingly recognised versatility in skills that professionals demonstrate. This in turn will address HR’s major challenge of retaining the best employees which is critical; lack of opportunities to develop is what cause employees to leave a company. HR teams have a critical role to play as coaches in detecting talent and skills in organisations and promoting them.

Administrative management:

HR chatbots and other virtual HR solutions have the ability to absorb a large part of administrative management and helpdesk duties. Employees can directly ask to see their holiday allowances and their rights in terms of remote working, call in sick for work or request holidays.

This results in immediate, omnipresent and multi-channel access for employees in turn resulting in more time for HR teams, which they can then reallocate towards higher value-added work. And most HR professionals believe that change is around the corner. In a survey conducted by the Fosway Group in collaboration with HRN, 79% of HR professionals in Europe expect an increase in HR technology investment.  


Ensuring decisions are legally compliant is a major difficulty encountered by HR staff and directors. Employment legislation changes so quickly that HR teams are struggling to keep up, whilst many professionals, say they lack the necessary time and resources to do so. Today, virtual assistants that are aware of legislation and employee histories are carrying out collective and individual HR procedures and case work, including resignations, remuneration, accidents at the workplace, etc.

What tasks can members of an HR department offer more contact, support and value for internally? Above all, HR departments must (re)conceptualise their purpose within the organisation and develop a new scope of action; one that’s more strategic and from whose efforts clear advantages to employees and the company are accrued.

3.   6 Ways to put the ‘Human’ back in Human Resources

Once HR teams reap the benefits of digitalisation, the challenge for them will be to move away from being seen as purely functional executives and recreate themselves as a more ambitious avatar in line with their original vocation -  to support human capital formation within organisations. Here are a number of ways they can do so.

Act as change makers and managers

In reference to Ulrich’s circular model of 2012, the HR teams of tomorrow will need to look both inwards and outward to attract the brightest talents in their new socio-economic context while also cultivating an agile internal organisation that prepares team members to come to grips with larger industrial and organisational changes and trends. Managing and leading transformation is viewed increasingly as an HR domain, up by 3% in Europe as of 2017.

Improve employee experience

The role of HR, which, for a long time was confined to bureaucratic functions, (think dealing with a new recruit’s signing on and paperwork,) is now steadily changing to encompass analysing sociological factors within the workplace such as employee experience and perceptions. In a satisfaction survey focusing on this topic conducted with human resource professionals, the results underlined that this particular tipping point is soon to be reached, with almost half of respondents (48%) in a Europe-wide survey of HR executives feeling that employee engagement is higher than it has been in the past.

Be a business coach

To better support careers and managers, HR practices must evolve to encompass the role of experts, coaches and facilitators in the workplace so as to support business challenges and introduce innovative managerial tools.

This approach will only be possible and effective when it is implemented at the heart of a company’s operations, directly on the ground and among all departments within an organisation. Across Europe, only 10% of HR executives perform coaching responsibilities.

Be a proactive stakeholder in employability

Given that 47% of existing jobs are threatened by automation in Europe and that the lifespan of technical skills is projected to fall to just one year by 2025, employees must be supported as they move towards more adaptability, because they are the ones that will need to undergo dozens of professional transitions throughout their careers.

It is crucial for HR units to move towards a more forward-looking, skills-based approach if we are to value individual potential so that employees can take charge of their own career trajectories themselves.

Develop and manage team spirit

Companies are fast becoming ecosystems for service providers, employees, freelancers and start-ups to come together. The old model of vertical organisation is crumbling in favour of more transversality, sometimes even beyond company premises (co-working, remote working, etc.). In this complex landscape, the challenge for HR is to guarantee a shared workplace culture from which shared values, practices and meaning can grow. Internal procedures, social cohesion and team events are key elements of collective life within a company and must be addressed by HR.

Be a ‘social incubator’

While companies are increasingly assuming a larger role in society (think of the growing number of Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives,) HR teams could easily be the initiator of or at the very least, key stakeholders of change. This involves dealing with issues related to working conditions (ethics, work/life balance, inclusion and diversity, etc.) and assuming the role of  ‘social integrator’; being the anchor point to showcase employees’ achievements and their personal growth. This would allow HR companies to play a pivotal role in recreating social balance.

In the long term, the digital revolution is an opportunity for us to put the  H for human back into HR, provided staff are able to regain full control over their roles and how they are viewed. This  will be vital to creating sustainable companies and, by extension, sustainable societies.

Posted by
Laure Girardot
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