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Rise of the Machines – Are Robots Your Workforce of the Future?

“Today, technology and automation are eliminating many jobs.” If you are a C-suite executive, an HR director or a member of the board and you have not yet given serious consideration to how automation and AI could affect your workforce, perhaps this line from Mark Zuckerberg’s recent Commencement address to Harvard’s Class of 2017 will make you stop and think about how your company will respond to the seismic changes around the corner.

There is likely to be a shift in the balance, in ways that we cannot currently foresee, between tasks that only humans can perform and those that can be done by machines. Robotic arms working on a manufacturer’s production line are now commonplace, but what if significant numbers of office-based workers start being replaced by machines that can perform “brain work” without needing to eat, sleep, take vacation or be paid wages? It may start happening sooner than we think. Companies will no doubt keep an eye on how these developments can open the door to improvements in efficiency and performance, but they also need to think about the HR implications. This is particularly true for unionized workforces, where the future impact of automation needs to be considered when negotiating union agreements that might last for the next three to five years.

Companies like Foxconn (which manufactures Apple’s iPhone) have looked to automation as a way of managing rising costs and maintaining competitiveness. But it’s not all bad news for the human overlords, because many of these companies are also expanding rapidly and creating jobs (at least in the short term) even as they automate certain parts of their production processes.

Profound changes in employment laws will likely follow, with politicians looking for innovative solutions to novel problems. Employers will need to look ahead and to start thinking about how to respond when the changes come, and to make sure that an HR professional is in the room when these conversations start.

This information is provided by Vinson & Elkins LLP for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended, nor should it be construed, as legal advice.