Business columnist Gene Marks opened a recent meeting of HVACR distributors with a high-energy talk about technologies that he said are being deployed with increasing frequency as companies seek to become more flexible and accomplish everyday tasks at a time when they can’t fill thousands of jobs.

Marks, who writes for The Guardian, The Hill, Forbes, and other publications, is also a technology consultant based in the Philadelphia area who specializes in customer relationship management (CRM). He spoke to about 250 people at the Heating Air-Conditioning & Refrigeration Distributors International (HARDI) Focus conference in May.

“More and more businesses across the country are just replacing people with machines,” Marks said at the Marriott City Center hotel in Minneapolis. “They have no choice.”

The technologies Marks highlighted in his keynote — many of them computer-driven — included payroll, financing, and human resources services; features in Microsoft and Google business software that he said are underutilized; and automated carts and lifting equipment that can be used in warehouses and factories.

CRM, Marks said, is the world’s fastest-growing software market, projected to be worth $80 billion by 2025. Of companies with more than 11 employees, he said, 91% have some sort of CRM software.

He also recommended the use of human resources software to help with tasks such as payroll calculations, requests for time off and sick days, and even performance reviews.

“You push this on your employees. They get it done,” Marks said. “It saves time, it saves people.”

Technology can be used to access fringe benefits; Marks said there are programs to help employees manage student loans, find mental health resources, give them financial advice, and even buy gift cards for them at discounts.

Some companies, he said, are enlisting artificial intelligence systems to interview job candidates via videoconferencing.

“Super creepy, but a ton of companies are using those,” he said.

Fintech — computer technology used to deliver financial services — is another hot market, Marks said. Online banking, online borrowing, and online accounts payable systems can all cut overhead, he said.

Marks emphasized the importance of security in the use of online technology: Greater numbers of people working remotely during the coronavirus pandemic have left companies’ systems more vulnerable, he said, and the use of ransomware is up 350% since April of 2020.

Security training for employees, multifactor authentication, virtual private networks, data backups, and updated computer security software, operating systems, and browsers are all vital, he said. Bad actors using bots, he said, are constantly scouring the internet, looking for flaws in the armor.

Marks stressed the need for security by telling a story of a casino that was wiped out when an internet-connected thermometer in a fish tank was hacked.

“Do not blow it off when Microsoft tells you it’s time for an upgrade,” he said.

Marks also touched briefly on the metaverse, the futuristic virtual connected world for which, he said, the groundwork is being laid.

“It’s a whole new model that’s coming,” Marks said, and it will be important for businesses to have a presence there. “You won’t be laughing six, seven years from now when you’re plunking down good money” for real estate and goods on the metaverse, he added.

Dan Nauert, the chief financial officer at HVACR distributor Refrigeration Sales Corp., praised Marks’ speech.

“He covered a lot of topics,” said Nauert. “Just a very, very good overview to get everybody thinking.”