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3 critical HR challenges that AI hasn’t solved yet

Steve Boese, HR Tech Conference chair
Steve Boese
Steve Boese is HRE's Inside HR Tech columnist and chair of HRE’s HR Technology Conference®. He also writes a blog and hosts the HR Happy Hour Show, a radio program and podcast.

The events of the last several years have combined to elevate the attention and pressure on HR organizations everywhere. Just looking back on the disruptive HR challenges, from the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and the widespread social justice issues that were at the forefront later that year to the Great Resignation of 2021, tech layoffs of 2022 and a potential recession that has had CEOs on edge for two years … HR organizations across industries and company sizes have been constantly barraged with an ever-expanding set of unprecedented challenges.

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Where there is not yet a singular, disruptive HR concern like the pandemic in 2024, it is still shaping up to be no less challenging of a year for HR leaders. HR organizations are still managing the lingering impacts of the events of the prior four years and are also reckoning with a new form of disruption: artificial intelligence. In fact, AI is so dominating the conversation in HR and workplace forums that it’s almost easy to think that AI has the solution to just about all of HR’s challenges.

But while the latest crop of AI technology solutions for HR are truly innovative, they can’t (yet) offer fully formed solutions to all of HR’s people problems. While most of us always have AI on the brain, it is useful to think about a few important topics where we have to rely on something other than AI to find solutions. It is in these areas where we still have to leverage our understanding of people, their motivations, talents, hopes, fears and dreams in order to craft the best solutions for them and for the organization.

Developing and executing a successful hybrid work model

One of the most important HR challenges that emerged from the pandemic era is determining the optimal organization of work and finding the best balance of in-person, hybrid and remote working arrangements. It seems like literally every day we can find news items discussing CEOs who demand workers return to offices, others who have limited promotions for fully remote workers and still others who reaffirmed their commitment to remote work.

HR leaders can compile data to help inform remote and in-person working arrangements, they can ask employees how they feel, of course. They can also examine location and facility usage data, collaboration and virtual meeting data, and compare that information to business metrics like lines of code written, customer order delivery performance or quality control metrics to get a sense of how remote and in-person working affect the business. And certainly, HR leaders can assess the competitive landscape for talent in their industry and location to determine the impact of working arrangement policies on recruitment and retention.

But even with all this data, AI technology—at least in the most common ways we think about how we are using AI—can’t yet offer much to help HR leaders make decisions about from where employees should work, nor can it help HR advise CEOs on these matters. We can’t (yet) ask ChatGPT if we should mandate employees to return to offices three days per week and receive a helpful and relevant answer. Getting this answer right is a big deal.

Supporting diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives

Most organizations have realized that diverse perspectives lead to better ideas, increased innovation and an organization that is better able to serve its customers. Plus, commitments to DEI help create an organizational culture where everyone can feel welcome and thrive. The value of this approach is supported by data. For example, the World Economic Forum has data that shows companies with above-average diversity scores drive 45% average revenue from innovation, a figure that is just 26% for while companies with below-average diversity scores.

In the pandemic era, catalyzed by the Black Lives Matter movement and other calls for social justice and change, organizations of all kinds reaffirmed and increased their commitments to DEI initiatives. It wasn’t AI that prompted HR leaders to act; it was a combination of their employees’ voices supported and augmented in many organizations by the personal commitment of leadership.

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Now, in 2024, some of the voices HR leaders hear are calling for them to scale back or de-emphasize DEI, at least the forward-facing elements of DEI programs. A combination of a tense political climate in the U.S. and a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision on affirmative action in higher education admissions is challenging organizations to reflect and recommit to DEI. Suffice it to say, it is a complex, dynamic and emotional set of issues—ones that AI is not capable of managing. Instead, it is up to people and their wisdom, insight and courage.

Engaging Gen Z workers

Gen Z, defined as people born between 1997-2012, is emerging as an important force in the workplace. Gen Z currently makes up 30% of the world’s population and is expected to account for 27% of the workforce by 2025. However, early indications from Gen Z’s experience in the workplace show that these newer workers are more restless and demanding than other generations. Data from McKinsey’s American Opportunity Survey show that 77% of Gen Z employees are open to new job opportunities, and almost 80% are considering work/life balance issues as a primary driver of their working decisions.

When it comes to recruiting and retaining Gen Z workers, organizations must pay attention to their unique characteristics and preferences as well. Gen Z, broadly, have grown up as digital natives and expect their workplace to be tech-savvy and forward-looking. Additionally, they tend to be more open-minded and more likely to advocate for fair, equal and ethical treatment and for their organizations to take stands on important social issues, such as climate change. Finally, they—like previous generations first entering the workforce—expect opportunities for growth and development and are seeking employment opportunities where they can build skills for their future. Recruiting, managing, and developing Gen Z presents HR and leaders with a complex set of challenges, which are not easily explained by the latest Gen AI models. Again, the skills and experience of HR leaders are paramount here.

Certainly, and understandably, one of the primary focus areas for HR leaders this year is the application of new, AI-powered technologies to support important people processes and initiatives. And of course, leaders should stay connected to the HR Technology Conference and Human Resource Executive for information and insights on all things AI and HR technology. But in the rest of 2024, it will also be important to remember that not all HR challenges have an AI solution just waiting to swoop in and solve all your problems. Some of the most pressing people problems still need people experts, and the most successful HR leaders will be the ones who continue to balance the people side of these challenges with all the amazing technology just waiting to jump in.