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the future of work

This week, I reached out to speak to an old colleague.

As in often the case with busy people, we needed to find a mutually convenient time to talk that accommodated our busy schedules and different time zones. This usually involves a tedious series of back-and-forth e-mails until one person accepts the other's scheduled invitation. But this time, to my relief, his new personal assistant, Amy Ingram, cheerily co-ordinated our meeting co-ordinates.

It took me a second to realize that Amy is actually a program that relies on artificial intelligence to handle these mundane tasks – her initials stand for AI. Yet "she" fooled me for a minute. She even has her own LinkedIn profile.

Amy the virtual assistant is just one example of how technology is rapidly changing the way we work, and the rise of non-human talent is one of the top 10 concerns preoccupying global businesses and HR leaders, according to a new report by Deloitte. The report's broader themes are often intertwined but one thing is for sure: It's a brave new world of work.

The report captures the need to simplify work for stressed-out employees. This can include reducing the time they have to spend on tedious, administrative tasks, like booking meetings. Hello, Amy.

Several related themes also emerged: the need to reinvent human resources to adapt to the needs of a changing work force; the continuing transition to a "contingent" work force, meaning temporary, contract, hourly and outsourced workers; and rising demand by employers for more data on prospective and current employees.

According to the Canadian edition of Deloitte's human capital 2015 trends report, almost half (47 per cent) of the of 118 Canadian business and HR leaders surveyed said they plan to increase the use of contingent, outsourced or contract workers in the next three to five years.

Between 20 and 33 per cent of the U.S. work force today comprises contingent workers, according to Accenture and a report by Intuit expects this number to rise to 40 per cent of the U.S. economy by 2020.

While advances in technology have set the stage for a more "on demand" work force, and the rise of temporary labour allows companies to adapt more easily to changing business needs, it creates challenges for managers who need to figure out how to get the most of these employees' fleeting engagement.

This is where the need for more people data comes into play. No one likes the mundane task of updating employee information. Luckily, a tremendous amount of information is already publicly available for savvy companies that know how to harness it.

"Today's forward-thinking HR organizations are well aware of the treasure trove of data available through outside sources – such as social networks – that can help monitor and build employment brand, identify and recruit talent, better understand compensation strategies, recognize flight risk, and monitor employee satisfaction and engagement," according to the section of the Deloitte report written by Josh Bersin and Michael Gretczko. They quote an executive who says, "Social media sites like LinkedIn appear to know more about my employees than we do."

In short, they argue, companies aren't doing enough to capture information about their employees to understand what they know and what skills they can bring to the table. Leveraging such external data allows companies to have a more up-to-date understanding of their work force's skills, allowing them to deploy employees and contractors more efficiently in new opportunities.

Encouraging employees to be more active on external social sites – and learning more about them as they go along – also helps raise a company's brand recognition. No one advocates better for your brand than enthusiastic employees and companies are embracing that shift.

"The relationship between employers and employees has shifted, making today's employees more like partners or even customers," according Heather Stockton, the practice leaders in human capital consulting at Deloitte Canada.

So how well do you know these new customer-employees and what will you do to learn more about them so that you can use their skills most effectively when they work for you?

It's a tough nut to crack for many managers, although, as the report suggests, improvements to human resources, better data and a greater reliance on technology to ease the workload remain good places to start. In the meantime, managers might want to get Amy to schedule their next business meeting and let her manage the grunt work while they get busy changing the work force.

Leah Eichler is founder and CEO of r/ally, a mobile collaboration platform for enterprises. Twitter: @LeahEichler