February 26, 2015

Imagine the office of the future. Everyone’s at standing desks, manipulating their workflow like the cops in Minority Report. The whole thing probably looks a lot like the inside of an Apple store. Hold that picture in your mind — complete with gleaming surfaces and chrome — and ask yourself: does the office of the future have an HR department?

It’s hard to picture. The tasks we normally associate with Human Resources: doing payroll, managing health care, procuring your badge... they all seem like candidates for automation. And tech companies like Namely and ZenPayroll are definitely trying to automate big parts of the HR process.

ZenPayroll, as you might guess from the name, tries to make payroll easy and stress-free, especially for small businesses. Its payroll software runs on any device with an Internet connection, and it handles all payroll-related taxes by itself. Namely automates more Human Resource work, tackling benefits, performance reviews, and compensation. It’ll even set up a private social network for your company, to help employees connect and work on projects together.

With software like that, more and more companies are doing away with their HR departments. A marketing firm in Toronto even replaced Human Resources with two concierges, who do traditional things like arrange mentoring sessions, but also pick up gifts for employees’ family members. Cool, right? Who doesn’t want someone else to remember their boyfriend or girlfriend’s birthday?

But doing away with HR can lead to a whole host of problems. “Organizations that have done away with HR completely underestimate the legal consequences," says Steven Miranda, Managing Director of Cornell’s Center for Advanced HR Studies. "What are the latest regulations on taking care of our veterans? How is the most recent proclamation on the Affordable Care Act going to affect our Health Care plans? So there’s 101 things that are not optional, that are legally required, and not having someone on your staff to take a look at them puts your company at legal and financial risk.”

Miranda believes that all this talk about the ‘end of HR’ is shortsighted. He says it serves a critical role, not just keeping companies abreast of laws and regulations, but finding the best people for the organization and integrating them into the company.

Indeed, he points to an issue that's frequently in the news — the shocking lack of women and minorities within the tech world (which we’ve covered extensively) — and says it's something that HR could help solve. “The [tech companies] would point towards this and say, well, we don’t need diversity, we just need top-level engineers. The reality is, you can have top-level engineers and a diverse workforce, thereby gaining access to even broader talent than what you thought was available before.”

So, unfortunately for The Office's Michael Scott, it looks like his enemy, Toby from Human Resources, may be part of the workplace of the future. Though hopefully, he’ll be sitting in an ergonomic desk.

Business, Steve Miranda, Cornell University

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