How Will

New Technologies Change

The Human Resource Profession?

Technology--cell phones, the Internet, and wireless services, for example--has irrevocably changed every facet of life from the home to the workplace.  Change is happening so quickly and technologies are developing so rapidly, however, that it is difficult, if not impossible, to sift through all the information and understand what developments will be useful to the workplace and what impact they will truly have in the long term.

Technology--cell phones, the Internet, and wireless services, for example--has irrevocably changed every facet of life from the home to the workplace.  It has spawned a new kind of global economy where the letter “e” is routinely attached to words like commerce, business and learning.

Change is happening so quickly and technologies are developing so rapidly, however, that it is difficult, if not impossible, to sift through all the information and understand what developments will be useful to the workplace and what impact they will truly have in the long term.

This issue of Workplace Visions explores the technological revolution.  This edition will provide an overview of what kinds of technology are currently available that will affect the human resource function in the short and medium term; discuss some of the emerging issues associated with the technology explosion; and speculate on the long-term effects technology will have on the workplace.

The Ten Year Outlook

Most futurists believe that because technology is developing so quickly, it is impossible to accurately predict what to expect in the way of new applications within the next three to five years.  Trying to predict the future seems to be human nature, however.  Therefore here are some of the technological advancements and consequences scientists expect within the next five to ten years:

§         Within the next five to ten years, nearly every working person will wear a small voice-activated computer that will connect the wearer to a vast database of information.  The palm-sized computer will provide accurate, real-time answers to almost every question, spurring historically high productivity rates.

§         Ray Kurzweil, author of The Age of Intelligent Machines, predicts that within the next ten years, computer screens will be placed directly on the retina, on eyeglasses, or on clothing.  Web sites and chat rooms, he predicts, will become three-dimensional meeting places, rich in detail and accessible at the speed of thought.  He also predicts that telephones that can simultaneously translate languages (for example from Japanese to English and back) will be perfected, allowing two different language-speakers to communicate instantly, greatly enhancing global communications.

§         Aerospace technicians will be the first to embrace virtual-reality technology, discarding the thick design manuals they have used for decades.  Virtual-reality will allow them to see three-dimensional blueprints literally before their eyes.

§         Technology will help create new jobs.  Corporate job titles of the future include “chief marketing officer,” “chief knowledge officer” and “business etiquette advisor.”  The latter position will exist to create policies and procedures on the use technologies such as e-mail and cell phones.

§         Telecommuting will increase, not just because it meets work/life issues, but also because rising real estate costs will push employers to use less office space.  Futurist Joseph Coates estimates that three percent of the workforce now telecommutes on a regular basis.  He predicts that by 2005, that number will jump to 25 percent.

These predictions may seem farfetched at first glance, but in many cases, t he technology is already available.  It is only a matter of time before it is perfected and widely available.

In the meantime, however, human resource professionals will grapple with more than just what is (or will soon be) available in terms of hardware and software.

Current Technology Use

In just a decade or so, Americans have fully embraced technology, regularly accessing e-mail and the Internet.  According to a survey by the United States Census Bureau, in 1997, half of all U.S. workers regularly used a desktop or laptop computer at work.  One in five Americans, or 57 million people three years of age or older said they used the Internet in 1997 and of the 43 million adults who surfed the Internet, 65 percent said they did so from home, 49 percent said they accessed t he Internet from work, and fourteen percent from school.

Although gender differences in the use of technology are waning, they still exist.  Fifty seven percent of women surveyed by the Census Bureau said they used computers at work, versus 44 percent of men.  Women appear to use computers differently than men, using them mostly to run word processing programs (60 percent of women versus 44 percent of men).   Thirty four percent of men reported using computers for analysis (versus 11 percent of women).  Surprisingly, age, at least among working adults, seemed to have little impact on computer usage.  Fifty four percent of employee’s aged 45-54 said they used computers, versus 53 percent of employee’s aged 25-34.

A 1999 study found that computer use has increased insignificantly even since the U.S. Census Bureau’s 1997 report.  The study, Nothing But Net: American Workers and the Information Economy (conducted by Rutgers University’s John Heldrich Center for Workforce Development and the University of Connecticut’s Center for Survey Research and Analysis) found that 68 percent of employees use a computer every day of work, and have access to one at home.  The report also found that the average worker spends 35 percent of their work time---or three hours every day---on the computer and that 23 percent used the Internet at work.

Education Level

Use Computer At Work

Use Internet At Work

Some high school (9-11)



High school graduate   



Some college (1-3 years)



College graduate



Post graduate



Source:  Nothing But Net: American Workers and the Information Economy, 1999.

Age and income are factors in the frequency of computer use, according to the study.  Older workers tend to use the computer and t he Internet less than younger workers do.  As for income: employees in lower earning brackets are less likely to use a computer and the Internet than those with higher earnings (57 percent for workers earning less than $40,000 per year versus 77 percent for workers earning more than $40,000 per year).

Education also plays a significant factor in computer use.   Workers with more education tend to report using a computer more and accessing the Internet more often (see box, page 3).

The study also found that contrary to what one might expect American workers view technology in a positive light.  Three-quarters of the 1,000 workers surveyed for the report said that the information technology explosion was good for the economy and for themselves.

Technology and Privacy

Employee access to such technology as e-mail and the Internet raise mutual worker-employer concerns.  Who owns an employee’s e-mail?  What are the ethical implications for surfing the web at work?  What kinds of websites are appropriate to view?  Is online shopping an employee perk or an outlet for lost productivity?  If an employee has an employer-owned computer at home, is it okay to visit questionable websites ”after working hours”?  What are working hours, now that technology has created a 23/7 workplace?  Perhaps most importantly, how can HR professionals harness emerging technologies to make the workplace and their own jobs more effective?

U.S. employers are actively trying to answer some of these questions.  According to a 1999 William Olsten Center for Workforce Strategies study, 63 percent of companies currently use Internet technologies to communicate among their own workers.  Another 21 percent are now considering it.  Two-thirds of employers say they have some sort of telecommuting initiative available to employees (see box, page 4).  Ninety percent of high-tech employers use corporate Intranets, as to do three-quarters of manufacturers.

It also appears the more and more employers are taking advantage of available software to monitor their employees’ web use (see box, page 7).  A 1999 American Management Associations survey found that 27 percent of major American firms regularly check employee e-mail, up from fifteen percent in 1997.   Company policies on employee monitoring vary widely.  Consider:

§         Burger King has a corporate policy that allows some personal use of company e-mail and the Internet, providing the employee uses the technology on company time and ensures that it does not interfere with business or job performance.  Employees must sign the policy and accessing pornographic or hate sites is prohibited.

§         The Miami-Dade School District in Florida allows students and staff unrestricted access to the Internet, although, according to the district’s written policy, Internet use must be “consistent with the educational objectives of the district.”

§         The Broward County School District in Florida, however, has a strict policy that bars students and staff alike from sending e-mail to the outside world.  It also uses special software that blocks access to “unseemly” web sites.

§         Ameritech Corporation has a zero tolerance policy that clearly states that computers and other company equipment “are to be used only to provide service to customers.”

§         BellSouth Corporation has a policy similar to Ameritech’s until 1998, when it changed it to a more permissive one.  Now, employees must click “OK” to a message warning them about the misuse of e-mail and the Internet.  The message also reminds them that their actions may be monitored.

Regardless of the policy an organization adopts, experts say that the key is to develop one and to stick with it.  “If a policy says no personal e-mail, there should be no personal e-mail,” says Mark Grossman, a partner with the Miami, Florida law firm Becker & Poliakoff.  “But I wouldn’t advise a client to have that sort of policy.  That’s the same as firing an employee because he picked up a phone and made a thirty second phone call.”

Attorneys also advise companies to write policies on e-mail and Internet use and electronic monitoring procedures.  They also advise employers to regularly alert employees that their online activities may be monitored and that inappropriate use may result in disciplinary action.  The advice is sound, since electronic monitoring of employees resulted in the firing of 40 Xerox employees for visiting pornographic, gambling and shopping websites on company time.  The New York Times also fired 23 employees after electronic monitoring showed that they were sending abusive e-mails.

Some organizations also choose not only to monitor employee usage, but also to prevent employee access to certain Internet web sites.  Zona Research, a Redwood City, Calif., Internet market researcher, found in May 1999 that one-third of companies surveyed screened out Internet sites not on an approved list.  The survey of more than 300 companies also found that 20 percent of respondents said they filter sites based on the user’s job and 13 percent based on the time of day.

There may be good reason for employers to be concerned about employees’ use of the Internet and e-mail for personal use. Active Research, Inc., a San Francisco Web-based market research company, reports that “retail clicks”---the number of people logging on to Internet shopping sites---start to gain steam about 9:00 a.m. on weekdays and peak at lunchtime., an Internet games sit, estimates that 65 percent of its orders are placed during the week between 9:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m.  And, another recent survey found that about 90 percent of employees use their company computer for personal projects.

While monitor employees’ computer use may be safeguard employers from some lawsuits, privacy groups warn that it may not only harm morale, but may also raise privacy concerns when companies unwittingly uncover employees’ visits to web sites offering advice for family or health problems.  According to Lewis Maltby of the National Work Rights Institute, “Monitoring by employers has become even more pervasive than I ever dreamed about.  It smacks of big brother and has gone too far, eroding employee rights in the workplace.”  Maltby also speculates that employee monitoring might backlash against employers, as employees leave to seek out more “web-friendly” firms.

Generally, courts of law have ruled that employers not only have a right to ensure that employees are not visiting questionable web sites or sending offensive e-mails out under company domains, but to a certain extent, an obligation to do so.  In the recent past, however, these court ruling have been successfully challenged by employees under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).  The NLRA protects the rights of workers to communicate freely with one another about work terms and conditions and since the widespread implementation of corporate e-mail, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has been weighing how those rights apply to employees’ use of e-mail, bulletin boards and chat rooms.  Recently, the NLRB reversed the firing of an Ohio computer programmer who publicly denounced his company’s new vacation policy via e-mail.  In another case, a Florida engineer from Pratt & Whitney successfully challenged a blanket company policy prohibiting employees from using e-mail for non-business purposes.  These NLRA decisions may cause employers to tread more carefully where employee use of e-mail and the Internet are concerned.

The Telecommuting Explosion

Futurist Joseph Coates predicts that telecommuting will become more popular among employers and employees, as employers seek to reduce real estate costs and employees seek to strike a better balance between their work and home lives.  Indeed, some futurists see a day where inner cities are virtual ghost towns, as more companies go virtual.  Severe labor shortages in developed countries will require companies to become more global, employing skilled workers from all over the world to meet their goals and objectives.  These global employees will not necessarily relocate to corporate headquarters.  Instead, they will remain in their own countries and work virtually through wireless technologies and videoconferences.  For workers who crave a more social atmosphere, shared community work places will be built, allowing telecommuters to rent space as needed.

As interested as workers and employers may be in telecommuting, it appears that, at least for now, the desire outweighs reality.  According to the study Nothing But Net, forty-one percent of workers said that with proper technology, they could do their jobs from a remote location.  Yet only sixteen percent said their employers offered them such an option.

At AT&T, five years after the company started a formal telecommuting program, the number of managers who telecommuted at least once a week actually dropped from 29 percent in 1998 to 24 percent in 1999.  Nationally, the number of telecommuting workers has hovered at about 8 percent.  Experts say, however, that this is just a lull before the storm and that telecommuting will explode as technology becomes more sophisticated, allowing workers access to the Internet at home as quickly as at the office.

Telecommuting offers its own, unique challenges for the human resource professional.  Many workers who have tried to telecommute have returned to the office, saying that they felt disconnected from their colleagues.  Others said they feared they were losing out on promotions.  Human resource professionals who have offered telecommuting options to employees quickly realize that there is more to a successful telecommuting program that providing an employee with the technical tools.  Some companies have initiated telecommuting training, allowing both the employer and employee time to assess if telecommuting will meet the employee’s needs.  Managing a regular telecommuter also poses challenges to supervisors who may feel they have lost the ability to effectively oversee and develop the employee.

Despite these challenges, telecommuting is potentially a win-win situation for organizations, offering increased productivity, higher job satisfaction, lower overhead costs, and better retention rates. 

Company Intranets

Some employers have taken the “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” approach to employee Internet use, particularly in their use of online shopping sites, by creating stores or gateways inside their company Intranets that allow workers to shop at certain sites online.  Employers are even touting this as a new corporate benefit, setting up deals with online grocers and discount pharmacy chains that offer discounts to employees who order goods and services online.  These kinds of ventures among employers and vendors will become more widespread.

Human resource professionals were early supports of company Intranets, seeing the value of putting certain employee information, such as health care claim forms and benefit plans online.  According to the 1997 SHRM World Wide Web survey, 85 percent of human resource professionals said that their company’s Intranet was useful for disseminating such information.  Eighty percent of companies report using their Intranets as the primary method for delivering HR-services; up from just 50 percent just two years ago, according to a 1999 Watson Wyatt Worldwide survey.

Organizations are becoming even more creative at offering employee services over an Intranet.  At General Electric, employees can create a personalized web page where they can read industry-specific news or check the weather.  They can also download tax forms and review benefit information.  The company also offers an online marketplace that offers employee discounts on GE products, Dell computers, and more.

At AT&T, employees can also manage their benefits through the company’s Intranet; check their 401(k) plans and make investment changes.  Hallmark Cards in Kansas City uses the Intranet to post cafeteria menus, an employee newsletter, and job-training resources.  And at Texas Instruments, new employees will soon be able to access the company’s Intranet before they start their new jobs, allowing them to become acquainted with company policies and procedures.  The site also includes a concierge service that will help plan an employee’s vacation, run errands, and help choose a doctor from the company’s health plan.

Most of these Intranet offerings appear to be standard fare for most human resource departments.  According to a recent report, Managing New Technology, by the William Olsten Center for Workforce Strategies, 60 percent of human resource department post health care benefits on the Intranet.  Sixty percent also post employee newsletters; 58 percent post training materials; and 33 percent post job applications.  The survey also found that most human resource4 professionals (61 percent) found that Intranets helped speed the delivery of corporate communications, reduced printing and mailing costs (49 percent) and increased productivity (47 percent).

It appears, then, that corporate Intranets are here to stay and have alleviated much of the administrative burdens on human resource professionals.  The question for many, then, becomes “what next?”

Technology and Human Resources

Preliminary conclusions to a state-of-the-art study by Patrick Wright and Lee Dyer of Cornell University suggest that the effect of technology on human resources will, like so many other professions, be profound.  The key words to keep in mind, according to Wright, Dyer, and the high-tech and human resource leaders they interviewed, are “faster, better, smarter.”  Technology, according to Scott Pitasky, director of strategic growth for, will change the face of human resources entirely.  “We can’t do HR the traditional way.  We have to blow it up and entirely reinvent the way we do HR here.” 

Technology will require human resource professionals to stop thinking in terms of months and years and start thinking in terms of weeks and days.  This will require human resource managers to change their mindsets from being a strategic partner within an organization to being a change agent.

But what does that mean?  For Al Ormiston, vice president of e-Sun, that means to facilitate the rapid pace of change introduced because of technology.  According to Ormiston, “the key role for human resources to play in this is facilitating change.  The change component is incredible, and I look to human resources for that.  The books on change don’t work.  It’s understanding the company and the executive personalities, and how to drive change in the context.”

Human resources has already shed itself of the rudimentary aspects of the profession through automated delivery of benefits, record keeping, and employee service.  Now, according to Wright and Dyer, it is time to focus on the higher human resource functions, such as knowledge management, strategic redirection, managing cultural change, and developing employees.

This will mean that the delivery has to speed up to keep up with corporate pace.  For many, this means faster delivery of training (including offering online training opportunities); focusing on the increased job hopping that a strong economy and technology seems to encourage through stronger recruitment and retention programs (to staunch some of the executive brain drain); and instituting tailored compensation plans to keep up with changing jobs.

In the midst of all this change and fast pace, there may be a silver lining; Wright and Dyer both predict that job descriptions will become obsolete, since they will change too rapidly to keep up with tomorrow’s workplace.


Due to the length of this issue, a full bibliography of resources is available through the online issue of this newsletter.  Please refer to the SHRM Workplace Trends homepage at

Society for Human Resource Management, Copyright 2000.