Change Management Christopher SmithMarch 15, 2022

Finding the right balance with workforce automation

Finding the right balance with workforce automation

The simple definition of workplace automation is the process where systems are developed to complete tasks with little or no involvement from people. This is not a new idea, particularly in manufacturing. 

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the term “automation” was first used in about 1946 to describe the increased use of automated devices and controls on car manufacturing production lines. Since then, workforce automation has become more commonplace across different industries. The use of robotics in healthcare, for example, has been taking place since 1985 when a robot helped with delicate needle placement in a brain biopsy – the procedure was successful and since then, robotics have been used across a wide range of medical specialities.

It is not uncommon for the introduction of workforce automation to be greeted with fear, suspicion or outright cynicism. In Canada, worried shoppers started a movement to boycott self-checkouts in supermarkets and other retail outlets because of the perception that they are employment-killers. Concerns about mass job losses caused by replacing people with machines need to be addressed when an organization makes this change. But a program of workforce optimization using technology can be implemented smoothly as long as there is clear communication within an organization about the benefits.

For office jobs, workforce automation may not lead to the same levels of anger about humans being taken over by machines, but it is still important to ensure a smooth transition process.

The human element

One of the first steps employers can take before introducing any form of workforce automation is to reassure employees that they are still valued by the organization. It is important for employers to properly explain the benefits of the new technology. With companies worldwide embracing digital transformation, employees need to know they are working with the technology rather than competing with it.

Automating repetitive tasks can make people’s jobs more interesting and enjoyable, giving them time to focus on more important things. This has the benefit of improving job satisfaction and creating higher value jobs, which in turn improves staff retention. There are also safety benefits to automation, particularly in manufacturing. Automated technology can intervene to perform tasks that can be dangerous when performed by hand, such as cutting, crushing, and heavy lifting. 

For HR departments, using automation, such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, has tangible benefits that will enable a more people-centered workplace. Time saved by using technology to sort through CVs and create automated shortlists during recruitment means HR professionals can spend more time properly interviewing the right candidates, reducing the risk of unsuitable hires.

No matter how sophisticated workforce automation technology becomes, it is important to remember that most solutions still require some human intervention. While many automated technologies can eliminate human error from many processes, people are still required to operate, inspect, and maintain the equipment. Automated solutions that involve data analysis need humans to make the final decisions, even when predictive and prescriptive analytics are used.   

Training is essential

When any new technology is introduced into the workplace, it is essential to ensure everyone is properly trained. Especially when there are real fears about being replaced by workforce automation technologies, employers need to run comprehensive training programs. Such programs need to not only explain how to use the technology on a day-to-day basis, but explain how it will benefit employees and the organization as a whole, and play a vital role in workforce optimization. 

It is important to make it clear that introducing workforce automation technology is part of a strategic plan rather than an afterthought, or a case of implementing technology for its own sake. This is critical for overcoming any resistance to change.

Training needs to be a top priority and, while this might sound obvious, it is important that the trainers know how to use the technology. This may require senior management to be trained in how to use the technology by the supplier or a qualified trainer, so they can pass the knowledge on to the rest of the workforce. Alternatively, a representative from the supplier or a qualified trainer may come to the workplace to train the entire staff.

There should be a clear timetable for rolling out training. This ensures that the automation technology can be utilized as soon as possible to maximize the return on investment. When employees are quickly armed with the skills they need to use the new technology, the sooner everyone will buy into the process and it becomes less of a change management challenge.

When employees feel they are part of the process, rather than being secondary to the technology, that is when they become true stakeholders.

Creating different jobs

One of the big picture benefits of workforce automation is that it creates different jobs across a wide range of industries. 

It is naive to suggest that over the decades and centuries that nobody has ever lost their job to new technologies. When the motor car replaced the horse and carriage as a more practical and efficient means of transport, jobs such as blacksmithing became less important, for example. However, the transition to motoring created new jobs, especially as cars went into mass production, in sectors including manufacturing, engineering, and design.  

In the same spirit of cars taking the place of horses and carriages, workforce automation has created new jobs. A report by PwC reveals that while industries such as finance and transport are most vulnerable to job losses because of automation, there are ways to prepare for the future. The report recommends that the public and private sector cooperate to help the workforce adjust to new technology with “retraining and career changes [and] a culture of adaptability and lifelong learning”.

We are heading towards a world with more workforce automation, but with the right training and upskilling of employees – and clear, reassuring communication from employers – the change can be positive and improve the working life for countless people.

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