Working with one of our clients who are involving their trade unions in early discussions about the potential effects of new workplace technologies on their business, led me to ask myself if this is a typical scenario in UK businesses? Firstly, are staff and trade union representatives typically sufficiently prepared to engage in high-level, strategic discussions about the connections between the introduction of new workplace technologies and employment relations?  Even if they are, are businesses likely to invite them to contribute to the discussions and at what stage in the organisation’s thinking?

The IPA research report titled: “Mind over Machines” examined the connection between the introduction of new technologies and employment relations, and identified the following ways in which in which new technology will affect employees in the future and, therefore, what all employee representatives will need to think about:

Work intensity or difficulty. Will technology will make employees’ working lives easier or, will it mean greater work intensification?  How can employee representatives highlight ways of avoiding the pitfall of intensification as new technologies are rolled-out.

Cyber Security.    It has been estimated that disengaged employees are responsible for 40% of UK cyber-crime – employee representatives will need to make an important contribution to business stategy in establishing appropriate cyber security processes and making sure employees are fully training in and engaged with them.

Worker autonomy. If new technologies are being used to increase monitoring and control of employees, representatives will need to consider how this might affect employee engagement in organisations that may only be thinking of the bottom line cost savings.

Employee health and wellbeing. Whilst robots may be used more to do the dangerous or physically exerting tasks, some new technologies may increase stress levels where the line between home-life and work becomes blurred.  Employee representatives will need to be aware of and able to communicate to senior leaders if stress levels increase and be part of finding a solutions.

Ability to implement new technology. Good employee relations can be the key to successful introduction of new technologies - the communication of a clear plan, objectives and options will be critical if people are to be convinced that their organisation is not introducing technology for technology’s sake. Employee representatives have an important role to play in effective implementation.

Re-skilling and training the workforce. Successful organisations rely on both formal training and informal peer-to-peer learning but the latter requires autonomy and engagement; two of the factors that could be diminished by the new technologies.

These are all serious challenges that all workplace representatives must rise to in order to contribute to discussions at a strategic level about the future structure of work.  New technologies bring with them the likelihood of significant changes to the workplace and the conversation needs to start well in advance of detailed proposals.   As a result workplace representatives need to be well informed, prepared, skilled and aware of the implications of new technologies, or Industry 4.0,  for their organisations.

For the trades unions, the challenge will be whether the core purpose of a trade union needs to evolve? How a trade union will recruit and serve new and existing members in these changing circumstances now becomes critical to address. Before this can be done, trade unions need to consider who they we be recruiting and what those people will expect from them. It is hard to see the traditional security of the “insurance policy” attracting much interest the in highly individually-minded workers who will need to be convinced that trade unions will be a positive force for their progression and engagement in an ever changing world of work.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for trade unions will be how to develop the flexibility and pragmatism required to meet these challenges.  Can  current decision-making structures within trade unions adapt to keep up with the changing workplace, while maintaining their democratic core, particularly as change will be implemented at an ever-quickening pace? The pressure will be intense.

And yet, in IPA’s work with organisations facing these issues, I do regularly  see staff and trade union representatives who are fully equipped, trained and ready to take on such challenges, as well as some who still take an ideological rather than a pragmatic view. If UK organisations are to make a success of Industry 4.0 it is essential that employees and employers work together to develop our future workplaces.

Derek Luckhurst, IPA Training & Development Director