AI can't replace human touch or HR, says academic

'However, managers often lack the training and resources to support staff wellbeing'

AI can't replace human touch or HR, says academic

With so much talk about the use of AI in HR, there’s one field in particular in which humans definitely outtrump the use of technology, says one expert.

And this can give organisations a significant competitive edge when it comes to recruitment and retention, says Professor Katharina Näswall of the University of Canterbury.

That area is employee wellbeing. Making sure people feel valued for who they are in an organisation and accepted as ‘whole humans’ is something leaders should consider a priority, says Näswall and it’s something technology can’t replace.

“This takes skill and also requires the time to really listen. However, managers often lack the training and resources to support staff wellbeing,” she says.

People skills are so vital in leadership roles that Näswall – who is director of the Master’s course in Organisational Psychology at the University of Canterbury - recommends they should not only form part of job descriptions but also be a competence that managers are evaluated on.

Develop leaders who can relate to staff as ‘whole humans’

Näswall, who is also co-lead of the university’s Workplace Analytics Research Group, says workplace leaders need to be able to relate to staff as ‘whole humans’ in order to engender emotional wellbeing.

Where employees were previously expected to leave their emotional lives at home, she sees a growing awareness of the need to cultivate work environments that don’t expect compartmentalisation of home and work lives. Managers are a critical component in this paradigm shift.

“While some businesses baulk at the investment required to develop managers’ skills in this area, evidence shows that when staff feel more valued, there are associated payoffs in productivity and commitment,” says Näswall.

Putting human sustainability on the agenda alongside organisational and environmental sustainability in the boardroom is essential, she says.

The ‘whole human’ approach to wellbeing is similar to having a holistic view. The difference is a holistic approach “has to do with all the components of your life that are important for wellbeing, but the ‘whole human’ approach means that everything someone wants to bring to work is accepted and this might include religious beliefs, a way of dressing, ethnicity, sexuality, and culture,” says Näswall.

Grasping opportunities to be upskilled in wellbeing

Leaders should grasp opportunities to be upskilled in this area, says the professor. “Organisations might not realise how important this is, or mistakenly think they need to do something big and expensive, whereas what we’re encouraging is people engaging with each other as humans - seeing each person as an individual so they feel value for who they are, not just because they come to work.

“That takes skill, so I think leaders should be rewarded for that and it should be part of their PD.

“Asking how people are doing might take a bit more time, but it’s actually really good for business, because then people feel valued and will work better.”

Large firms and CEOs are increasingly seeing wellbeing at work as a way to secure organisational sustainability and productivity, she says, but to make real progress, leaders need to appreciate the potential for success with the ‘whole person’ approach.

“Ultimately this becomes a brand issue,” says Näswall. “We’ve seen in other countries organisations that don’t value wellbeing might not be able to compete for talent.

“The flip side is that organisations that do care about their people will be able to attract the best talent and be more successful because people want to work for them.”

It becomes a valuable part of an organisation’s EVP, she says.

It’s important to track and measure whether people feel valued for who they are and that they’re motivated to work.

“Ideally, leaders will be aware because they know their people through engaging and communicating but it's good to formalise that through regular surveys and looking at data on absenteeism or turnover.”  

Don’t replace one-on-one chats with feedback

However, that doesn't replace one-on-one chats about how things are going.

“If there are only surveys and no chat, wellbeing and engagement will be much lower because people don't feel like they matter,” says Näswall.

“A positive day at work has a huge impact outside of work as well… So that's a mechanism to support good wellbeing and mental health in society in general. If we improve workplaces to be good for us, then we'll improve mental health in New Zealand in general.”

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