HR’s Role in the ‘New Normal’ Digital-Driven Workplace

By: Sattar Bawany, Managing Director, EDA Asia Pacific & C-Suite Master Executive Coach


“Today’s business and human resource leaders face unprecedented challenges operating in a global environment where disruption has impacted in a significant manner the way the world works, as many of us have experienced recently. The current wave of disruption, including the ongoing Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the familiar forces of digitalization, globalization, and demographic change, are reinventing the workforce.

The role of HR is to partner with the business to understand their challenges in this ‘new normal’ and equipped the leaders at all level with the ‘disruptive digital skills’ including agility, adaptability, resilience, cognitive readiness & critical thinking, empathy and social skills needed for sustained success and effectiveness to thrive in the disruptive, digital-driven workplace.”

Prof Sattar Bawany

Leadership in Disruptive Times’ (July 2020)

Business Express Press (BEP) Inc. LLC, New York, NY.



Disruption is happening everywhere and in every aspect of our lives. It is happening at a scale and speed that is unprecedented in modern history impacting diverse industries, from financial services to retail, media, logistics & supply chain, manufacturing, education, healthcare and life sciences. Not every disruption is driven by advances in technology as we have seen in the case of COVID-19 pandemic (since early 2020) where organizations all over the world face an uncertain future in a global business environment that is highly disruptive and increasingly uncertain. As we have seen in the early stage of the COVID-19 pandemic, HR has played a significant role in this crisis as organizations implement their business continuity plans and contingency measures to mitigate the risks associated with the pandemic and protect the employee’s safety as the utmost priority.

In the ‘new normal’, as a result of the crisis, the employee’s mental well-being is of great importance. This is likely resulting from the impact of the employee’s confidence and expectations of the future. They may experience a heightened state of high anxiety and stress. This needs to be addressed effectively otherwise it could affect employee engagement resulting in deteriorating job performance which may lead to a situation where there is compromising safety, quality, and productivity at the workplace. HR in partnership with business leaders needs to prepare for tomorrow’s workforce where they face twin challenges of producing growth and preparing for the new, often unknown opportunities the future will bring. They must answer a more profound question: How can we deliver exceptional performance by developing our people to thrive in this highly disruptive and digital workplace? (Bawany 2020). This requires HR to have a clear vision for an uncertain world – one that sets out transparently the plans that allow people to take on new and redesigned which could contribute towards a compelling people experience. Hence, HR has an exciting and challenging road ahead of itself.

Before the COVID-19 outbreak, many organizations have reported that one of their biggest challenges in the digital transformation at the workplace is the lack of people with relevant digital skills. Emerging skills gaps, both among front line employees and leaders, may significantly obstruct the organization’s digital transformation efforts. Hence, human resource leaders would have an essential role in ensuring that a comprehensive approach to workforce planning, reskilling and upskilling will be the cornerstone of the organization’s business strategy (Bawany 2020). COVID-19 is especially a wake-up call for manufacturers who are suddenly faced with a paradigm shift in the design and operation of their production processes. This poses several significant challenges, not least of which is the financing of plant conversion and finding people with the right IT skills to manage the new systems.

In the aftermath of the pandemic, digital transformation has become more urgent than ever. There will be a strategic shift in how technology will be leveraged to enable how and where people work. HR will play a key role in supporting the new ways of working including the provision of the relevant digital tools. Further, there is a need for a well-defined “Work-From-Home” (WFM) guidelines and policies for the entire workplace ecosystem supporting a fully remote workforce with capabilities and technologies enabling them to support critical business operations.

Increased digitalization and automation are expected to affect jobs significantly. New types of jobs and employment are changing the nature and conditions of work by altering skills requirements and replacing traditional patterns of work. They offer opportunities, especially for developing countries, to enter new, fast-growing sectors and catch up with more advanced economies. At the same time, new technologies are affecting the functioning of labor markets and challenging the effectiveness of existing labor market institutions, with far-reaching consequences for the number of jobs in the workplace

Automation (including Robotics and AI) will replace many repetitive tasks at work, create new roles and change the focus of existing ones. Organizations can benefit from more efficient processes, as repetitive tasks can be off-loaded to allow employees to fill other roles. HR’s ability to understand the emerging technology landscape is essential. Furthermore, HR needs to have a grip on the risks caused by automating work – replacing human work with technology. Without a clear understanding of this, HR will not be well-positioned to help plan for and deliver a compelling narrative about the future to workers.


HR should demonstrate its role as a strategic partner to the business as there is a real need to get HR and business leaders on the same page to accelerate preparations for the future. Managers should be coached on how to implement the digital transformation initiatives effectively and how to measure and recognize their success. They should also encourage HR to lead and help drive the organization’s thinking about the future of the workforce and ensure conversations with HR are inclusive and far-reaching.

As a strategic partner, HR should be at the forefront of moves towards higher automation and AI, rather than merely responding to changes in technology. They need to work with the business leader and be brought into discussions from the onset of technology evaluation and planning to highlight the people’s related issues. HR needs to step up to add a human dimension to the conversation, accounting for the effects of automation and AI on how people will operate, engage, and feel about their work. HR should also be trained to use data analytics to predict and monitor skills gaps in the workforce. They should also develop their analytical skills and business understanding to lead initiatives related to the process of mapping automatable tasks, which includes taking steps to ensure employees are allowed to develop the skills they need to do the jobs of the future.

Digitization and smart automation will rule the workplace trends in the coming decade. Combinations of machine learning, robotics, artificial intelligence, and other technologies are already transforming the workplace at an unprecedented pace. While the role of the HR will shift from transactional to a more strategic role, they also have the responsibility to help organizations and the talent navigate through the changing workplace dynamics. We can expect to see human resource professionals playing a leading in people-focused digital transformation. Their role is expected to be more strategic and work with business leaders to leverage on technology to ensure business sustainability as we have seen during COVID-19 crisis where many companies are relying on technology to allow their people to work from home due to the safe distancing measures imposed by governments to contain the spread of the disease.

Most businesses are experiencing the “knowing-doing gap” where they are failing to transcend the gap between knowing what is needed and doing what is required to combine emerging technology with new processes and skills to remain competitive. This presents a significant risk to the organization, its operating model, and the talent it acquires and retains. While the presence of a contingent workforce and access to technology such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, cloud computing, data analytics and robots, opens doors to opportunities for the organization, it also stokes fears of redundancy amongst existing employees which needs to be addressed promptly and effectively as this would impact on the organizational climate, employee morale, productivity and performance.

When reviewing organizations that have undergone or are going through digital transformation, it has shown that far less attention is dedicated to addressing the people and cultural aspects of change management and change leadership than the processes and technology behind the transformation. Businesses must adopt the ‘PPT’ mantra, which is putting People ahead of Process and Technology. That said, conversations about managing employee experience and placing it at the forefront as a core component of digital transformation have risen in recent years (Bawany 2020).


About the Author:

Professor Sattar Bawany is the Managing Director & C-Suite Master Executive Coach with Executive Development Associates (EDA) in Asia Pacific. He is also the Chief Executive Officer of the Centre for Executive Education (CEE). EDA is the Strategic Partner of Centre for Executive Education (CEE) in offering a suite of Executive Development solutions in the Asia Pacific region.

Prof. Bawany is also an Adjunct Professor of Leadership and member of the Advisory Board of the Curtin Graduate School of Business (CGSB) of Curtin University, Australia.

His books, “Leadership in Disruptive Times” and “Transforming NextGen Leaders: Meeting the Leadership Challenges in the era of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (Industry 4.0)” were recently published by Business Expert Press (BEP) LLC in New York.