4 people levers to unlock human potential in an AI world: Global Talent Trends 2024 

Organisations in every industry are looking for ways to increase productivity. But rising levels of employee burnout and a decline in trust show the potential human cost. Could AI be the answer?

More than 400 Australian HR leaders joined Mercer’s recent Global Talent Trends Webinar. And the 50-plus questions submitted in advance showed one topic was clearly on everyone’s minds: how to unlock the potential productivity-boosting power of AI.

“We want to reframe the productivity narrative from doing more with less, to doing more with less effort,” explained webinar host and Strategy Activation Leader at Mercer Workforce Solutions, David Guazzarotto.

Spending too much time on busy work is the number one diminisher of productivity according to executives and employees responding to Mercer’s 2024 Global Talent Trends survey.

“By redesigning work and reducing busy work – work that is not generating meaningful value – we can give time back to employees. Time to build new skills, be curious, think, and focus on their own wellbeing or look after their family and friends,” said David.

Who wouldn’t sign up to an Employee Value Proposition (EVP) that promises more time for the things that will help you thrive? With 8 in 10 (81%) of employees in Australia saying they feel at risk of burnout, 30% admitting their workload is unsustainable, and a ten percentage point decline in trust that organisations will do the right thing for employees, there is a compelling and urgent case for change.

This year’s Mercer Global Talent Trends results revealed four trends that can help your organisation unlock human potential in a machine-augmented world. Mercer’s Jessica Fox, Anne Le Blanc, May Lee and Jessica Balcombe joined David to share how they’re seeing HR leaders prioritise each of these critical levers. 

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1. Drive human-centric productivity

Australian labour productivity had one of its sharpest falls in 2022-23, dropping 3.7%. However, one in two executives surveyed believe AI is the answer to combat that decline. There is a fundamental belief that changing business models to better leverage AI will result in productivity gains.

“AI can help us work smarter, not harder,” said Jessica Fox, a Senior Associate in Mercer’s Workforce and Organisation Transformation practice. “It’s an amazing opportunity to reimagine how we work, particularly how we can augment our human capabilities to unlock new levels of productivity and innovation.”

Jessica believes the productivity decline shows that although people feel they’re working harder than ever, we’re not seeing the gains from that busy work.

“Employees tell us they’re spending 34% of their day on repetitive tasks, and just 26% on creative work. But the creative work is where innovation and value lie,” Jessica said.

The true value comes from using that time to unleash human capabilities, not just replace them.

“By sharing these gains from AI with employees, we can address workforce re-skilling, upskilling and cross-skilling priorities,” said Jessica. Prioritising internal talent development strategies also helps address the top threat shared by HR leaders around the world: a global skills shortage.

2. Anchor to trust and equity

Trust is a strong predictor of employee success. Employees who trust their employer have a higher sense of thriving and lower risk of burnout. However, trust that organisations built during the pandemic through flexible work policies and wellness initiatives is now eroding, with employees pointing to broken promises, unfair treatment and lack of recognition as the main causes of this deterioration. 

“Three in ten employees tell us they’re planning to leave their jobs. The question on my mind is, how do we help employees experience more joy in the work they do?” said Anne Le Blanc, Senior Principal – Mercer Workforce Solutions.

She described integrity, competence, and benevolence as a trifecta for building trust. These elements encompass equitable skill development, leadership with integrity, and a sense of kindness within a positive workplace culture.

“Skill development is a really great leveller,” observed Anne. “It promotes fairness, opportunity, learning, and career development.” And many organisations (27%) are building a more systematic approach to achieve this through internal talent marketplaces. Talent marketplaces can connect people more equitably to opportunities for learning, secondments, mentors, or progression planning.

Anne said diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) progress, including pay transparency, is also critical. With only one in two executives confident they will deliver on their DEI commitments in 2024, and 78% of Australian employees saying they’ve witnessed age discrimination in the last year, more clearly needs to be done here.

“You need to understand what fairness means to people, including like-for-like pay. While you’re gathering all the data for your WGEA submission, think about how it can help you make good remuneration decisions,” suggested Anne. 

3. Boost the corporate immune system 

The World Health Organisation defines burnout as, “a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” With eight in ten employees saying they’re at risk of burnout, this is a significant and very real organisational risk. 

Yet Mercer’s research shows that Executive priorities are dominated by near-term risks such as technology, environmental and compliance requirements.  Concern for health and wellbeing, leadership, and workforce practices seem to be an executive blind spot, falling too far down the risk-to-business list.  

Interestingly, investors see leadership and workforce practices as the number one short-term threat to businesses. This is an opportunity to learn from resilient organisations who understand that the biggest business risk is their people risk. Resilient organisations help people feel valued for their contributions while providing an environment that tackles the looming risks of burnout.

“The things to look out for when we talk about burnout are exhaustion, depletion in energy, disconnect from your job, disengagement from the organisation,” explained May Lee, Senior Principal – Mercer Workforce Solutions.

This may result from employees feeling overwhelmed by the constant backdrop of change with everything from technology through to cost-of-living pressures. To counteract that, people need to feel valued, systems and processes need to support them, and change needs to be communicated clearly.

“This is why EVP and employee experience continue to be a priority for HR,” said May. “This is an opportunity to get into lockstep with risk teams and work together to face the future in a more healthy and productive manner.”

Health and wellbeing may have previously been perceived as the ‘soft side of HR’. But May emphasises, “there’s nothing soft about being risk aware.” It also has a tangible benefit to the bottom line: 45% of employees say they’d give up an additional pay increase for wellbeing benefits. 

4. Cultivate a digital-first culture

Beyond health and wellbeing, organisations will need a culture that is both adaptive and digitally fluent to ensure their people can thrive in an age of AI-enabled productivity.

Jessica Balcombe, Product and Services Innovation Leader, described this is as, “the race for simplicity.”

“It’s not about replacing humans with technology. It’s the combination of humans and tech. By focusing on how people can better leverage the technology, we can create a world of work where they can thrive,” she said.

That includes designing workflows that use tech to help humans be more efficient and using AI tools to take care of tasks such as baseline data analysis so humans can put their deeper insights to work.

“Just over two-thirds of organisations told us they’re adopting new tech without transforming how they work. That’s missing a tremendous opportunity to truly transform the work itself,” Jessica suggested.

“We need to get people excited about the potential of new technology. We know from our own experience that when we use a new app on our phones, it quickly becomes like our right hand. That’s the experience we should be creating in a digital-first culture,” she explained.

HR leaders play an important role here by listening to what people need and their pain points – and figuring out how a digital-first approach could overcome these.

If AI can support the ‘heads’ and ‘hands’ parts of a task, people have more capacity to bring their best human attributes to work – and connect with their hearts.

Executives told us seven of the ten barriers to change are human – including the need for new skills and mindsets, change fatigue, and general exhaustion. That’s why this transformation is not an IT change. It’s a people change – one HR needs to lead.


Global Talent Trends Study 2024: Executive Summary - Australia

Learn more about the trends and priorities driving Australian HR and business leaders.
This content is intended to inform clients of Mercer's views on particular issues. It should not be relied upon or used as a substitute for professional advice specific to a client's individual circumstances. Whilst Mercer believes the prospective information and forward looking statements made by Mercer in this report are based on reasonable grounds, they are predictive in character and may therefore be affected by inaccurate assumptions or by known or unknown risks and uncertainties. This content has been prepared by Mercer Consulting (Australia) Pty Ltd (MCAPL) ABN 55 153 168 140. `MERCER' is a registered trademark of Mercer (Australia) Pty Ltd ABN 32 005 315 917.
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