Technology is an enabler; it gives businesses, cities and leaders information on the environment and safety, opportunities to engage with new audiences and creates new choices as to how and where to work. However, use of this technology produces risks, not least to privacy and data protection. As cities and workplaces become more intelligent, connected and agile, HR, IT and facilities management will also become increasingly enmeshed – with shared goals and concerns, and trust/transparency ever-more crucial.
We are becoming an ever more connected society. This is thanks to the revolutionary strides made in the power of computing and cloud technologies – from Turing’s enigma machine, to IBM mainframes, desktops and now tablets and mobile phones. This power will transform cities into “intelligent spaces” – lights that operate on motion sensors, self-cleaning bins, air quality monitors, electronic road pricing, traffic flow and calming measures, driverless cars, trains, metros and buses; all sorts of charges levied electronically from parking to congestion charges; collaborative technologies for car sharing platforms and the “Uber bus service” and all this overseen by CCTV with facial/biometric recognition software.
As with cities, so with offices: biometric security for entry; biometric authentication for certain areas within the office; sound and motion sensors; air quality control mechanisms; all sorts of sensors to provide information about how equipment like desks and workstations are being used and, again, all overseen by CCTV.
Cities, offices and the individuals that they are supposed to serve will harness the power of technology and the internet of things to drive “efficiencies/improvements” in business and lifestyles. What this means is big data – a city and office wide sensing network (using cloud technology) that provides both city and business managers with access to a real time, integrated stream of data about the current state of services, infrastructure, energy and people flows and this can be used to monitor and control resource usage, analyse past trends and predict future needs and problems.
Within the world of work, technology will continue to blur the boundaries between working time and time off (for example, via smartphones, workers are potentially on call 24/7), between what is private and what is not and how private information (personal and sensitive personal data) is collected and subsequently used (or not). Technology has moved the dial from the human touch of an “open door” policy, to the digital reality of an “open source” workplace.
This shift inevitably means that employers need to be consistently aware of their own “employer brand” – how attractive is your business and its environment? Is it the flower that will attract the talented bees? Getting this right will require (and already does require in some industries and functions) human resources to branch out to encompass both IT services and facilities management. As more organisations and industries develop both products and ways of working that embrace new technologies – perhaps forming new sectors like AdTech and FinTech – attracting and retaining employees who are able to function and innovate in this space will be crucial. This might entail relocating certain business functions to new hubs such as Tech City, or utilising spare space in existing facilities to encourage entrepreneurs and creatives to share the work environment and collaborate on certain projects.
For offices, just as for cities a key part of their attractiveness is environmental health and safety. Technology can make life superficially easier – temperature, humidity, air quality, WIFI, automatic permissions for certain areas of the office and IT architecture to help avoid inadvertent security breaches, but all the time these systems are active data is being collected. Combine this with widespread use of wearable technology – that allows your clothes to say so much more about you than the mere label they bear – and the modern day worker is generating a huge amount of personal and/or sensitive personal data.
Even though “tomorrow’s people” – namely millennials and those entering the workplace who are born after the year 2000 – are brought up with tech and are tech savvy, it will remain the responsibility of employers to ensure that the by-product of this generation’s engagement with technology does not lead to abuses of what should in reality be treated as confidential personal information/data – much of which may also fall within the category of sensitive personal data.
Already there are words of warning – it has been said that it is impossible to fully test any computer system and, as time pressures grow in relation to achieving smart cities, testing the technology that lies behind the objectives becomes more difficult. Furthermore, the weak link in smart city infrastructure is the population density itself – too many users for the networks (“oversubscribing” in the vernacular).
This densification – including competition for space, place and time – is a problem across the board and it is up to HR and legal professionals, as well as policy makers, to meet the challenge head on and create solutions that ensure the workplace and workforce is productive, protected and fit for the future.
That said, technology produces opportunity. For “tomorrow’s people” technology facilitates remote or home working, portfolio work or agile self-employed status. The same technology gives business a choice between a “statement” HQ, or website lead marketing, or both. If a business is web centric, then remote working may well be favoured. Whatever choice is made, trust in the relationship will be key. Trust becomes key to all that is done and that will be capable of being done using technology because of the data that will be generated and the need to keep it safe – and to use it appropriately and lawfully.
Having started with a reference to Alan Turing OBE FRS, it is appropriate to finish by quoting the final sentence in his seminal paper, “computing machinery and intelligence” (“the imagination game”) as follows: “we can only see a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done”.
Richard Isham is partner in the employment team at law firm Wedlake Bell
Rebecca joined the HRreview editorial team in January 2016. After graduating from the University of Sheffield Hallam in 2013 with a BA in English Literature, Rebecca has spent five years working in print and online journalism in Manchester and London. In the past she has been part of the editorial teams at Sleeper and Dezeen and has founded her own arts collective.