The issues of automation and digital transformation and how to create inclusive, transparent, and innovative cultures were some of the many topics discussed by CEOs, technologists, and human resources leaders last week in San Francisco at the Work Rebooted conference. Julie Douthart, biochemist and serial entrepreneur, is the founder, guiding light, and curator of Work Rebooted.

The conference opened with a bit of foreboding. Despite an 11-year economic expansion and the lowest unemployment rate in more than 50 years, US workers fear that robots will replace their jobs. As we enter a new decade, experts predict that robots will replace 20 million jobs across the world (mostly in manufacturing) and 1.5 million in the US over the next ten years.

While workers are afraid of losing their jobs to robots, CEOs have their own fears. According to the C-Suite Challenge™, the annual survey of CEOs by The Conference Board, talent shortages, disruptive technologies, non-traditional competitors, transformation, and the constant need to reduce costs and innovate are on the minds of CEOs as we begin this new decade.

But there is also a bright side. Conference Chair Valerie Morignat, CEO of INTELLIGENT STORY, observed the findings of AI job creation of the World Economic Forum. It reports that artificial intelligence will create 133 million jobs across the world in the years ahead, almost double the number to be replaced by artificial intelligence. Jobs with growth include software, data analytics, and social media management.

Keynote speaker Ben Pring, Co-founder of Cognizant and best selling author, urged optimism. Smart CEOs and human resources leaders will move to integrate artificial intelligence in their operations effectively. They will learn to let robotics and artificial intelligence augmentation do the analytics, administration, and repetitive and sometimes dangerous factory tasks they do best, freeing up human beings to do what they do best, use their judgment and build relationships. It isn’t wise, he said, for humans to try and be a “bad robot.”

HR can be the data-driven talent partners to CEOs. Ross Sparkman, Head of Workforce Planning for LinkedIn told HR leaders that with the analysis provided from the AI of new HR recruiting and HRIS platforms, HR  can now identify the best sources of talent and the competencies that truly drive job performance and innovation. With these tools, HR can provide new, data-based insights on how to align HR to business strategies and to make better data-based decisions for people driven decisions. He predicted that winning organizations would develop learning and team-based cultures.

2020 will be the year of new human capital mandates from the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). According to Ron McKinley, from the International Center for Enterprise Engagement, several forces are converging to urge companies to represent the need of its stakeholders, not just the shareholders. Leading the charge on this initiative is the Business Roundtable. One outcome, which will raise the visibility of workforce indicators will be ISO standards on important human capital metrics such as culture, turnover, diversity and inclusion, and employee engagement that will need to be reported in Annual Reports.

Below are other valuable key themes of the conference.

Build purpose-driven cultures with wellbeing.  Katz Kiely of Beep and Aaron Hurst of IMPERATIVE and author of The Purpose Economy hosted a fireside chat discussion about automation. They emphasized that the implementation of automation has an tremendous failure rate — more than 80%. The leading causes are culture resistance, poor strategy for AI, a lack of talent to work the initiatives, followed by poor support by top leadership support, and faulty program management.[i]  As investment in technology rises, however, productivity has not kept pace. Worse, Gallup’s research on employee engagement shows that 87% of the world’s workforce is disengaged, meaning they show up for the paycheck, doing the bare minimum of what is required, and are not contributing their best ideas and discretionary effort.

Katz and Aaron advocate creating purpose-driven work cultures with an emphasis on wellness and wellbeing. Rather than replace workers with robots, unleash the full problem-solving potential of the workforce and a healthy combination of AI automation with human group problem-solving.

Diversity and Inclusion is not just a moral imperative. It drives profitable growth. In several discussions over the two days of Work Rebooted, participants heard calls for a more inclusive and diverse workforce — not only for the moral imperative of equity and fairness but also for the economic value of diversity. Several studies show that more diverse work cultures and companies that have more women in leadership and on their boards are more productive and have better financial results.

Many presentations pointed to increasing chasms at work, somewhat similar to our national politics. Charges of harassment, in its various forms, filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission are at an all-time high. Surveys now show that men are now backing away from mentoring women because of concerns over saying something inappropriate. One presenter suggested a strategy that will benefit everyone.

Sejal Thakker, Founder of TrainXtra, recommended that companies instill a value and protocol of civility at work. It would be a great beginning to allow clear, open, and polite discussions to occur at work. Sejal is encouraging the world to make 2020 the year of workplace civility. I like the sound of that!

What emerged from the discussion are two very valuable insights on diversity and inclusion.  One is that first-line managers hold the key to having women start out at pay equity and not getting overlooked for being on high potential lists and promotions. While many companies focus on promoting and hiring women and people of color at the VP level, a more impactful strategy is to make sure the entry point to the pipeline is truly open and equitable.

The second is that the same transparent, collaborative, and agile cultures that enable innovation and drive profitable growth have the same cultural traits necessary for diversity and inclusion. These cultural traits emphasize ongoing learning, job upskilling, and team members feeling recognized and connected to their teams and the company’s mission. What a revelation: innovative cultures which lead to better financial performance and employee work experiences also nurture diversity and inclusion.

Allow workers to have more control over their work lives. Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer, the author of Dying for a Paycheck, said that work is killing people, and no one cares. He pointed out a dizzying set of statistics on how the American labor force is over-worked, pulled in every direction, spends too much time commuting to work, and too many workers do not have health insurance. Even when they do, many cannot afford the deductibles and co-pays for their medical treatment.

Pfeffer pointed out that the number one reason for household bankruptcy in the US is overwhelming medical bills. The effect is a stressed out, short-term focused, and uncommitted workforce, which is often ill, absent or worse present but ill. Pfeffer cited research from the US Center of Disease Control and Prevention that absenteeism costs the US economy $223 billion annually. The cost of presenteeism (defined as reporting to work ill, fatigued, or distracted) could be much higher. He recommends allowing workers to have more control over their work and work-life balance, including flexible and remote work programs.

Remote work will replace cube farms by the end of the decade. That was the prediction by Ben Pring of Cognizant. Johnny C Taylor Jr, the President and CEO of the Society of Human Resources, followed up later in the conference, emphasizing that the future of work will not only include the difficult issues of worker and machine integration, but new paradigms of when and where employees work. Taylor emphasized that companies need to look seriously at more flex-work or remote work alternatives that allow employees to work at home three to four days a week or four-day work weeks. Each company will have to figure out for itself which solution will be the best, based on the company’s business model and need to satisfy its customers.

Taylor, a former Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO), is the most dynamic leader of SHRM I have ever met and will propel SHRM to be more of a force on workforce change. Under his direction, SHRM will increasingly advocate for labor laws for the digital era, diversity and inclusion, and flexible work solutions, and recruiting those on the fringe of our workforce: the 70 million formerly incarcerated, veterans, and the disabled, which he likes to speak of as the enabled.

Right legal framework for the gig economy. Taylor also said that one of the most significant issues facing employers in the 2020s will be to find the right legal framework for the gig economy. Current laws in the US were set up after World War II and need to be updated to reflect today’s workforce, technology, and work styles, he said. With one-third of the workforce taking on gig work full or part-time, it is too large of a segment of the workforce to ignore. Yet, ignoring the laws of the gig workforce leaves companies vulnerable to lawsuits.

The question for each company is what is the right purpose and size of its employee workforce, gig workforce, and temporary workforce?

In the face of fear in the workplace, automation, job loss, disruptive technologies and competitors, and the need to continually manage transformation, CEOs and CHROs need to lead their organizations through the turbulence with clear strategies and transparency. Human Resources leaders now have access to AI to provide data-driven talent strategies that enable the profitable growth of their businesses.

Working together, CEOs and CHROs are now able to make data-driven decisions on the value of their work cultures, talent, employer brands, and how to keep it all focused on the company’s purpose while providing their employees and gig workers a great experience.

Victor Assad is the CEO of Victor Assad Strategic Human Resources Consulting and managing partner of InnovationOne. He works with companies to improve their recruiting, HR operations, and develop extraordinary leaders, teams, and cultures of innovation. His new book is Hack Recruiting: the Best of Empirical Research, Method and Process, and DigitizationSubscribe to his weekly blogs at

[i] “How to Drive a Digital Transformation: Culture is Key: Companies are using digital technologies to unlock new sources of economic value. But it takes more than technology alone,” © 2019 The Boston Consulting Group And “AI adoption advances, but foundational barriers remain” McKinsey & Company, November, 2018,