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3 Key HR Tech Trends to Watch in 2021

HR tech is changing more rapidly than ever before. Here are the key three trends you need to watch in 2021.

Yessi Bello-Perez


Photo by Robynne Hu on Unsplash.

Unleash Your Work Quantum computing, cybersecurity, and emotion technology — the three trends every HR technologist needs to watch in 2021.

  • Technological advancements are happening fast — and many nascent technologies are gaining momentum, making their potential application much more of a reality.
  • HR technologists need to future-proof their organizations and their data.
  • The rise in AI-related technologies must spark an ethical debate.

For years, business leaders including Bill Gates warned that a severe pandemic was coming — but nobody knew when, and as such, many organizations across the globe were caught off guard. 

The outbreak of COVID-19 meant HR departments had to scramble to flesh out remote strategies to keep themselves and their employees safe. Beyond the HR sphere, companies had to diversify suppliers, and build and e-commerce propositions to make up for the sudden loss of footfall in brick-and-mortar stores. 

Looking ahead, CB Insights’ ‘12 Tech Trends To Watch Closely In 2021’ report says “pandemics are far from the only large-scale threat the world will have to contend with.” 

Other threats, the report notes, include extreme weather increasing in severity and frequency due to climate change and the rise of crippling cyberattacks targeting electricity grids or other infrastructure — and in many instances, HR will have to bear the burden of planning and future-proofing organizations. 

[Download: Why HR Projects Fail report]

‘The Quantum Timebomb’ and cybersecurity 

As organizations re-tool to embrace the future of work, many nascent technologies, which a few years ago seemed like lightyears away, are gaining momentum. 

Although it’s fair to say that quantum computing is still in its infancy, technology giants such as Google are making strides. 

In 2019, Google became the first quantum computer maker to obtain “quantum supremacy,” which essentially means they were able to run a calculation on a quantum computer dramatically faster than any other conventional machine could ever manage. 

At the time, the tech behemoth said it solved a problem in just a few minutes that would take a classical supercomputer 10,000 years to complete. 

Just over a year later, a team in China claimed to also have achieved quantum supremacy, this time completing a computation in 200 seconds that would otherwise take about 2.5B years — 100T times faster.

Organizations have reams of data and the same rings true for HR departments all over the world. With many workers working remotely, there’s a heightened need to ensure data is safe from rising cybersecurity threats. 

There’s no denying that quantum computing could eventually disrupt healthcare, finance, and logistics but the report notes that its rising momentum is “creating an arms race to secure data faster than quantum computers can decrypt it.” 

“This is because a powerful enough quantum computer could quickly overcome common internet encryption protocols like RSA, which use prime factors of large numbers to protect online data. This could cause problems on a scale far beyond even today’s slew of high-profile data breaches,” the report highlights. 

Now is the time for organizations to futureproof their cybersecurity systems. Photo by Adi Goldstein on Unsplash.

Think about it: a hacker with a decent quantum computer could access sensitive business materials including emails, e-commerce payments, and medical records. 

“Even some blockchain networks — which are seen as relatively secure and are quickly being adopted by enterprises — could eventually face serious challenges to the integrity of their records,” warns the report. 

It adds: “In response, new encryption methods to counter quantum computers are starting to emerge — including some being developed by major tech players like IBM and Microsoft. Referred to collectively as ‘post-quantum cryptography,’ these techniques tend to be built around problems that quantum computers aren’t expected to have many advantages in solving. 

“The US-based National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is planning to recommend post-quantum cryptography standards next year to help organizations adapt, a much anticipated move that will fuel implementation and help support interoperability.”

Many industry observers, the report adds, believe today’s encryption methods will suffice for a decade or more, but others worry that an unforeseen breakthrough could significantly reduce that timeline. 

With many organizations still running on legacy security systems, the report is quick to note that the complexity of shifting to new infrastructure is a further incentive to move quickly and update to a new encryption protocol “that will soon be necessary.” Ultimately, speed is of the essence.

“The stakes of a quantum computer undermining many of today’s commonly used encryption standards are high — countless everyday e-commerce transactions and even sensitive government communications could be vulnerable — and the damage could be much more widespread than today’s headline-grabbing data breaches. Imagine millions of shops, hospitals, and banks around the world that could no longer ensure the privacy of their online systems,” it notes.

Imagine your organization being targeted and hackers making way with sensitive personal information about you and your colleagues.

How happy are your workers?

The report also says that businesses will prioritize building AI technologies that can interpret and respond to human emotions as they look to connect with consumers. 

In the HR space, AI chatbots are already being deployed to help build trust across entire teams — signaling the fact that, in many instances, AI has gone from buzzword to must-have business competence over the past decade. Voice assist technology is also being used during recruitment. 

“From retail to healthcare to financial services, AI is penetrating nearly every industry, with advances in deep learning, computer vision, and more paving the way. AI, though, has largely been challenged when it comes to recognizing and reacting to human emotion,” the report notes. 

“In fact, the AI Now Institute at New York University called for a ban on the use of emotion recognition tech ‘in important decisions that impact people’s lives and access to opportunities’ in its 2019 report. But the attempt to use AI to recognize and respond to emotion, or emotion AI, isn’t a new concept — and in 2021, as political and social pressures continue to push tech companies to account for a wider range of human experiences, emotion AI will become an increasing priority,” it adds.

Indeed, the deployment of these technologies should spark an ethical debate about how these are rolled out and to what end. It’s for this reason that we’ve seen the rise of the chief ethicist officer in recent years.

‘Hotelization of the office’

As organizations look to return to the offices, spaces will be less populated and personal, and the aesthetic will shift away from the collaborative “campus” model, says the report. 

“In the short-term, employers are focused on cleaning, sanitization, and air quality, and may look to disinfection startups, self-cleaning tech, and an array of other solutions to help keep air and surfaces clean and germ-free. 

“But the effects of the past year of lockdowns will extend beyond cleaning and social distancing measures. More long-term, expect to see offices becoming increasingly like hotels used for short visits and less like the cushy big tech ‘campuses’ that came into fashion in the pre-Covid era,” the report adds.

[Read: Why Agile Workplace Management is Key For The Future of Work]

Rather than having their own cubicles or offices, employees may only come into the physical office a couple times a week — but not before booking work spaces in advance.

This will inevitably help organizations save costs. “For larger spaces like conference rooms, cafeterias, and events venues, scheduling software can facilitate booking and “check-in” and “check-out” protocols, as well as manage cleaning between uses,” says the report.

Long are the days of communal tables, cubicles, sofas, and bean bags. Offices will be transformed to ensure workers are adhering to the ‘new normal.’ Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash.

The pandemic will also cause a significant change in how offices are designed.

“Plants, natural light, and better airflow could all be major design focuses for companies looking to bring the outdoors in and make office spaces more desirable without detracting from cleaning and distancing protocols. Simple measures like touchless doors could make offices feel safe and modern. Together, deliberate tech and interior design choices can make offices more enticing spaces, even in the age of work-from-home and social distancing,” the report notes.

Finally, the report suggests that we may see an uptick in companies offering virtual common spaces, well beyond the widespread adoption of video conferencing software that has already taken place.

“Augmented reality and virtual reality are already reshaping education and training, and now companies have started to experiment with AR/VR in a work context to help capture a human element even in virtual interactions,” it concludes.

Key takeaways:

  • Now is not the time for complacency. HR teams need to think well beyond 2021 and set up their people for success for years to come.
  • HR tech stacks will have to change based on current and future business needs. This will require an overhaul in processes from recruiting all the way through to cybersecurity.
  • Technological advancements are happening fast. HR technologists must work with IT departments to ensure that businesses stay ahead of the curve. Do not dismiss nascent technologies, but rather think about how you may want to implement them in the medium-to-long term.

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