To minimise the potential downsides of automation, we must listen to frontline workers

08/11/2022 by Ali Sajwani

As a proponent of automation, I’m acutely aware of the advantages and, equally, the perceived disadvantages. But first, to understand the full potential of automation, we need to ensure people and technology are aligned.

Employees globally have expressed concerns that automated processes will take away their jobs, and Hollywood has certainly had some interesting takes on the concept of robots taking over. Ultimately, we know automation is increasingly being adopted, and interest is rising – especially when you consider respected analysts such as the McKinsey Global Institute, which estimated back in 2017 that automation could raise annual productivity growth globally by 0.8 to 1.4 per cent.

Furthermore, even allowing for only partial automation of some roles, McKinsey suggested global savings on salaries of almost US$15 trillion. 

But in this bold new era of automation, it’s a pressing task for organisations to ensure human talent is well looked after and to ensure people feel connected to the organisations purpose, vision, and each other.

Let us not forget that humans have already experienced one wave of automation – the industrial revolution–when some groups of workers discovered that their skills were no longer required–but that period primarily affected blue-collar workers – those who performed simple and repetitive tasks. 

Automation strikes more fear in white-collar workers than in middle-income workers, such as office workers, chefs, security guards, junior lawyers, and inspectors, to name a few.

Having your role ‘displaced’ by an automated process will create uncomfortable feelings akin to redundancy. But in preparing staff for change, we can ensure a smoother transition while encouraging displaced staff to discover new meaningful work, whether within the same field or elsewhere. 

People will still be required. In the 20th century, we witnessed technology displace traditional agricultural practices across the globe, especially in the developed world, with great productivity leaps. This shift didn’t result in mass unemployment because it occurred alongside the creation of new types of work. In terms of the rise of automation, productivity gains will only arise if people work alongside machines. 

Pundits have also spoken about organisations’ having a moral responsibility towards employees facing automation takeover. 

As many human-led tasks become automated, I believe the very nature of work will change in most sectors. It’s down to organisations to redefine roles and business processes, which in turn will affect employees at all skill levels. There’s a need for global, state-level intervention to ensure institutions and training centres adapt to help displaced employees gain new skills relevant to the new era, backed by support to help us all navigate this dramatic transition period.

And as the usefulness of automation grows, so should the school’s role in preparing the new era of employees for a possibly very different work environment. I see a future with more engineers, software engineers, repair, and maintenance crews, and the like. Think about the new world of work, where highly skilled, technically competent people are well-paid to perform rewarding jobs. Boredom at work may well be a thing of the past. Will a “roboticized” future be better for the average employee? I certainly hope so.

Automated software and hardware can only function with human help, after all. We need to manage people’s expectations of the limits of automation and how humans fit into a bright future. The World Economic Forum has posited that people will be less overworked; that we will have better, more reliable information at our fingertips, and that workplace boredom will be relegated to the past.

Such positives need to be communicated to us all. Add in that work will likely become less stressful–indeed, less dangerous in many instances–and the machines that we might be suspicious of today will free us in the near future to focus on collaboration, creativity, and complex problem-solving. By listening to our employees’ concerns, I believe we can help ensure people enter a new era with a positive mindset and a willingness to learn new skills. Then, we can all enjoy a bright new future.

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