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„Putting people at the center again“

In conversation with Prof. Dr. Petra Nieken

Professor Petra Nieken, Chair of Human Resource Management at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), explains the role people play in the changing world of work and what is important in HR management.

What is the significance of people in today’s world of work and the corporate environment, and to what extent has the role of the workforce changed recently?

People remain the central force in the world of work. People have the creative ideas and drive innovations. Right now, we are seeing a shift in industry away from fully automated, Industry 4.0 production largely devoid of people and towards putting people back at the center of our thinking. This is the Industry 5.0 principle, according to which technology adapts to the needs of people. The goal is efficient interaction between humans and machines working together in an integrated way. The pandemic, the move to the home office and the shortage of personnel have greatly accelerated this development. At present, we are still finding the right balance as to how and where we do our work in the future: We’ve seen that remote working functions even better than expected, but we also need those informal interactions in the workplace, i.e., chatting over coffee or meeting in the corridor. We are, after all, social creatures.

What might the future of work look like?

In future, the world of work will be based on a hybrid model, where employees spend a few days a week in their home office and the rest of their working hours in the company. Given the shortage of labor, the workforce will increasingly be able to choose the alternatives that are important to them, and employers are quite willing to adapt to this. At the same time, the workforce will become more diverse and international, and all these people will want to be seen and heard in the workplace. We are already using various forms of digital communication on a daily basis, and we need to think about future collaboration models that integrate the social element. Technology will do a lot, but not everything. At the same time, workplaces will change, as they always have. We should see this as an opportunity. We should see technology as a helper that takes on routine tasks, for example. As a result, the workforce will have more time for their real jobs and can devote themselves much more intensively to the creative and social aspects of work.

Ideally, how should HR management be structured now and in the future, what is important?

We are currently facing the problem that there is too much work for too few employees. HR management must transform itself to take up a people relations role and act as a coach for managers and employees. Many processes of a purely administrative nature, such as payroll administration or job advertisements, can be easily digitalized and automated if this has not happened already. This frees up time for strategic work and allows people to focus on making the company a great and sought-after place to work. The workforce will become more diverse and many different needs will have to be reconciled. Employees need to be helped to feel at home in the future world of work and to tackle the challenges. A good approach is to address employees individually and, for example, offer tailored training options. Digitalization provides the necessary flexibility to do this. And, last but not least, HR should also make use of the potential of AI and digitalization judiciously and integrate it transparently into its processes.

Professor Petra Nieken has held the chair of Human Resource Management at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) since 2014. Prior to this, she worked at the Institute of Applied Microeconomics at the University of Bonn and was a visiting scholar at the Department of Economics at UC Berkeley. Her research interests include the future of work, digital leadership, incentives and employee motivation.


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