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In recent years, we’ve seen dramatic changes in the field of HR due to new developments in culture, demographics, technology, and politics. Between the #MeToo movement, the rise of remote work, increasingly multigenerational workplaces, automation, and even the legalization of marijuana, it is no surprise HR directors in 2019 are feeling like their hands are full.

Here are five things keeping HR pros on their toes this year:

1. AI vs. the Human Touch

As the overall attitude toward technology shifts from “The robots are taking over!” to acceptance and embracement, it’s clear artificial intelligence (AI) is here to stay. Across industries, there is a growing realization that technology will serve as a catalyst for the development of new skill sets and increased human productivity, rather than fully replacing human labor.

In other words, the most likely outcome is that machines will automate more routine technical tasks so human workers can specialize in more complex soft skills, like conflict resolution and change management. The machines will do what machines can do, and the people will do what only people can do.

However, the increasing adoption of AI does present a compelling issue: achieving HR automation without losing the human touch. To be truly valuable to HR, technology must support employees as individuals. Managers, therefore, should evaluate HR tech on more than just the wow factor of its specs.

The digital-versus-human struggle is not a uniquely HR conundrum. Rather, it may be one of the core troubles of modern life: How can we embrace technology without losing the qualities that make us human?

As AI transforms various HR functions like resume review and training, it is critical to understand its limitations as well as its potential. This understanding may be the dividing line between those who succeed in modern HR and those who are eventually phased out.

2. Marijuana at Work

While drug-free workplaces have always been the norm, the legalization of marijuana has made office expectations a bit fuzzier. In addition, the constantly changing — and sometimes conflicting — federal and local laws don’t do much to ease this HR headache.

As medicinal and recreational marijuana usage become more common, employers are feeling the pressure to adhere to drug policies while accommodating the medical needs of employees. It is wise to continuously review your office’s policies in light of changing laws and shifting social perceptions.

For more expert HR insights, check out the latest issue of Recruiter.com Magazine:

3. Pressure to Upskill

You may have heard of upskilling, the grooming of existing workers to help them adapt to their jobs’ evolving parameters. As we’ve established, automation is here to stay, and it is replacing routine job functions with new roles that require new skills. An employee who has had the same job for 10 years may now need to utilize a new array of digital tools to do that job. Upskilling is one key way that organizations can prepare their workforces — and, by extension, the business itself — to meet the higher levels of technical proficiency, creativity, and cognitive skills required by the jobs of tomorrow.

Further driving the pressure to upskill are the expectations of today’s employees. Top talent has always known continuous learning and development were critical to staying relevant in any industry. Given the rapidly changing nature of work, employees of all levels now understand this truth. Thus, today’s candidates want to work for employers that invest in skills training.

Perhaps the most compelling reason to upskill is that doing so can boost the company’s bottom line by increasing the efficiency of its staff. While upskilling initiatives cost money, they also offer promising returns on investment. It is simpler and more cost-effective to address skills gaps by training current employees rather than hiring new ones. On a similar note, the continuous growth opportunities presented by upskilling programs make employees more inclined to stay for the long term, as they won’t have to look elsewhere for career advancement. This helps the company save on recruiting and training costs — not to mention the cost of lost institutional knowledge when highly experienced employees leave.

4. Increasing Employee Demands for Flexibility

Flexible work has entered the mainstream, and the good news is it carries just as many benefits for employers as it does for employees.

Apart from the obvious “happier employees are more productive” argument, flexible work options can improve retention. In fact, one study found 82 percent of workers would be more loyal to their companies if they had flexible work opportunities. It follows, then, that companies looking to retain top talent should consider implementing flexible work options instead of spending more money on company cars, phones, and other less effective perks.

Another reason to get on board with flexible work is that the younger members of the talent market increasingly demand it. In fact, many millennials and Gen. Z-ers won’t even consider a job if it doesn’t offer remote work opportunities. It is important to keep this preference in mind when trying to hire young professionals. Your efforts may get nowhere without it.

5. #MeToo

In 2018, the #MeToo movement touched every aspect of HR, from improved harassment training to forced changes in upper management. The biggest impact for businesses has come from new regulations. For example, in New York City, all employers with 15+ employees must now offer annual anti-harassment training.

As 2019 progresses, it will be interesting to see how the #MeToo conversation encourages additional dialogue around such related issues as equal pay and leveling the playing field for historically marginalized peoples.

One final note: While these challenges certainly hit HR directly, every company leader should understand these issues affect the entire company as well, both directly and indirectly. By addressing these concerns proactively, businesses can expect to reduce turnover, improve culture and morale, and attract more quality talent.

Henry Goldbeck is the president of Goldbeck Recruiting, Inc.

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