When we think about the future of work, we can’t help but think about the role that robots will play in replacing or complementing humans.
A trend we will once again consider in light of the forces shaping the future of work in 2022.
At first sight it has no impact on the subject but it has allowed us to learn some things. At the end of the first wave of containment, an Oracle study told us that 82% of employees think that robots will support their mental health better than human beings.
Don’t fall into the easy shortcut that this figure may suggest: we are not talking about robots to take care of employees but about robots to free them from tedious tasks without any added value. Employees don’t want to be hugged, but to have solutions to their daily operational problems, but I refer you to the article I wrote at the time to learn more.
Everything that exists in the customer’s world will one day exist in the employee’s world and automation is an excellent example of this.
In our daily lives we are confronted with robots without even realizing it.
And we use them too, if only through voice assistants or, for the geeks, tools like IFTTT or Zappier.
It is not illogical that the consumer / user expects to find in his working environment tools that simplify his daily life.
It exists, it is already present in our daily life in variable proportions and to such an extent that we sometimes don’t even see it. Artificial Intelligence, Robotic Process Automation but also the old rules engine which is still perfectly adapted to many needs.
It is even so much there and available that we can be tempted to put it everywhere and that’s the problem.
The evolution of society and economy
When we keep hearing that people want meaningful work I don’t think they mean routine, repetitive tasks without much added value.
There is also a desire today to regain time. Time to do more interesting things at work, time for yourself, time for others, time to work four days a week… whatever. And that’s where a lot of that time will be earned.
It is also, like it or not, the logical consequence of businesses trying to hire employees only for value-added tasks that a machine cannot perform, given the labor costs.
All sectors have had to go through this, and white-collar workers, administrative staff and other knowledge workers are no exception.
The transformation of service activities and knowledge work
No impact here from a purely operational point as well as from a “people centric processes” point of view.
But one factor must be taken into account: the more a task is repetitive, routine, simple in the sense that it does not require any particular reflection, the greater the risk of error in its execution over time when it is entrusted to humans
Bottom line: automate, but to what extent?
The automation of certain tasks is inevitable, for better or for worse.
For the better because it will benefit :
• The employee who is freed from the tasks he likes the least and who can thus devote himself to those where his added value will be the most visible and will bring him the most satisfaction.
• The business which will gain in terms of costs, quality and reliability in the execution and will undeniably have a greater engagement of its employees.
For the worst, because as usual when it comes to technology, businesses have two attitudes: to be in denial and not to see their added value, or to rush into it and do anything with it.
The question is not so much whether to automate or not but where to stop.
It’s kind of the same as with a similar topic, which is employee self-service: it’s beneficial to the point where instead of saving employees time, it wastes it.
When it comes to automation, there are several things to keep in mind.
• Sometimes automation will eliminate human contact. Sometimes no one will complain about this, but sometimes too much automation can lead to dehumanization. In particular, there are subjects where, even if a robot does as well as a human, an employee will always be more reassured to talk to one of his colleagues.
• Automation embodies the promise of computing at its most extreme: to do more and on a larger scale. But it’s easy to see that doing more, faster, and on a larger scale, a dysfunctional process that was only satisfactory because humans knew how to fix its imperfections will only generate problems even faster and on a larger scale than before.
• It is underestimated how many processes require an individual to use common sense and some judgment at some point. A machine has neither. Automating to generate a flow of complaints or dissatisfaction proportional to the time saved is not a good idea.
• There should always be an employee as a backup to an automated operation, just in case.
• Automation should not be a black box, especially when it concerns personal data. Everyone must know what is being done and how.
In short, the future of work is a reasoned automation that benefits both the business and the worker, not an automation that dehumanizes too much and generates a surplus of work by its side effects.
So much for the apostles of technological solutionism.