HR managers have more options than ever before to automate processes. Software bots are taking over routine work, and chatbots are now augmenting the work of recruiters.
And their options keep growing, which will likely make HR automation a leading topic for organizations in the year ahead. The big question is, will HR automation lead to eliminated jobs or will it make jobs all the more interesting by offloading tedious work to machines? While there is evidence that automation may eliminate some jobs, the research is far from conclusive.
Along with the hype around HR automation, here are six more trends HR pros should keep their eye on in 2019.
1. Will HR staff grow or shrink in 2019?
In a survey of 1,200 global HR executives, KPMG, a professional services firm, found that "more than half of HR executives surveyed -- 60 percent -- believe AI will eliminate more jobs than it creates."
Yet, the same report, titled "The future of HR 2019: In the Know or in the No," also found that 88% of the executives called their AI investment worthwhile.
Some large and well-run organizations with revenue of more than $1 billion are using automation to reduce HR staff, according to The Hackett Group Inc., a management consulting firm.
Hackett recently found that the best-performing HR departments have 32% fewer employees. The reason? They make better use of automation. But this is an elite group of HR departments, and it only accounts for about 10% of the survey group.
2. Software bots gain ground in HR
Software bots are taking over work in HR departments. These HR automation tools are designed to perform transactional work, such as updating employee addresses and managing payroll processes. They follow a script to complete rote tasks.
But bots are also becoming more sophisticated thanks to AI, which can increase a bot's ability to take over more complex tasks. Part of the reason for their popularity may be that the cost of the technology, called robotic process automation (RPA), has been declining.
Forrester Research estimates that a bot can be built for as little as $30,000, with recurring maintenance of about half that price. Finance and HR departments are the two biggest adopters of RPA tools, which can save a company thousands of hours of labor. This can result in the reassignment of HR workers to more interesting work or, sometimes, in job loss.
Gartner, an IT consultancy, and Auxis LLC, a consulting and outsourcing group, only expect the RPA market to grow. Auxis found that 71% of all organizations are evaluating RPA tools. And Gartner, which put the worldwide market for RPA tools at $1.5 billion, said the market is growing by 50% annually.
3. Chatbot use in recruiting expands
Chatbot systems are being used on corporate job sites to answer basic questions from job seekers; the chatbots can use text to converse with a job prospect. Voice capability is not yet an option in many of these deployments, but that may begin to change in 2019.
Recruiters are now asking whether AI-type systems will ultimately replace them. That's a question L'Oréal S.A., the global cosmetics-maker, faced when it rolled out its HR chatbot system.
Brock McKeelsenior director of digital operations, Walmart
Rather than replace its recruiters, L'Oréal wanted to make them more efficient by creating a better experience for the two million people who apply globally for jobs with the company, which hires about 5,000 employees annually.
The recruitment chatbots are still in their infancy, but they are getting better at handling more complex questions such as, "What's a company's work from home policy?" said Brian Westfall, senior HR and talent management analyst at Capterra, a business software advisory firm for buyers.
Chatbots are also getting better at "handling shifts in the conversation," Westfall said. "If a potential applicant suddenly breaks off from a line of questioning about skills requirements to ask about salary, for example, it's not going to break the bot."
4. Annual engagement surveys in steady decline
According to Gartner, large annual engagement surveys will continue their steady decline next year. The research company predicts that only 74% of companies will use an annual survey in 2019, down from 90% in 2015. By 2020, Gartner believes only 63% of organizations will still be using this engagement tool.
Critics of the annual survey say it can take months to complete and that it's too backward-looking, but proponents say an annual survey can provide year-to-year comparative data.
Annual surveys are being replaced by shorter surveys, or pulse surveys, and other methods, such as tracking employee behavior. Those who favor shorter surveys say they deliver faster results and enable management to be more responsive.
Other tools, such as those that can analyze employee ID badge data, may also be gaining in popularity. If people are leaving work earlier and arriving later, it might be a sign of declining engagement. That kind of data could give HR departments a chance to be proactive.
Canadian HR advisory firm Morneau Shepell identified improving employee engagement as a leading priority for HR leaders in 2019 in its report, "Human Resources Trends for 2019." It was cited by 67% of respondents in its survey of 356 organizations.
5. VR's use expands in employee training
The use of virtual reality (VR) to train employees will continue its march to mainstream adoption. For now, deploying VR technology is expensive, but companies that can scale their investments, such as Walmart, are making it work.
Walmart is using VR to train employees on everything from how to take care of the produce section to how to handle crowds on Black Friday. The company said VR has improved certification test scores, and it is convinced that VR is the future of training.
"Life isn't 2D," said Brock McKeel, senior director of digital operations at Walmart, in an interview in September.
The cost of VR is expected to decline, and the availability of VR-enabled training materials is expected to increase.
6. Employee experience gets political
A potentially unusual employee experience prediction for 2019 comes from Forrester. The consultancy believes that as "traditional institutions of trust" break down, such as government and community sources, employees "will look to companies to pick up the mantle of social responsibility."
Organizations competing for top employees, in particular, may have to demonstrate their commitment to social causes, such as racial injustice. That kind of information could become part of the pitch made by recruiters.
Forrester pointed to Nike as one example. In a national advertising campaign, Nike featured former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who became a controversial figure in 2016 for kneeling during the national anthem. Nike's message was: "Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything."
The advertising campaign drew the ire of President Donald Trump, who tweeted: "What was Nike thinking?" But the campaign was a strategic one, and it was credited for a surge in Nike sales.