A standard metric for gauging how long a job will take, is the amount of ‘man hours’ it will consume. So, for as long as there have been tasks to complete, workplace automation has existed to lighten the load. Lowering the man hours, while increasing productivity.
Yet the effects of automation in the workplace aren’t always positive, with some seeing these progressions as a threat, more than an opportunity. But change is always on the horizon, and wise leaders should be poised and ready, with outstretched arms.
What is workplace automation?
Workplace automation is the act of applying systems and processes to supplant repetitive manual effort, thereby improving efficiency, reducing stress and bolstering employee satisfaction.
In fact, automation has been with us for centuries, spurred along by the advent of new technology. With each leap and bound heralding exciting prospects and potential developments. Monks used to transcribe gilded Bibles by hand, and each tome would take years to complete. Then the printing press revolutionized the speed and spread of books. Eventually giving way to digital copy and, currently, ever-changing interactive screens that we carry with us everywhere.
Whether great or small, these changes are designed to help people work smarter and faster, and clear tasks with greater ease.
Case in point, as a writer, I’m eternally grateful I don’t have to look ahead at my schedule and see this one article slated in for the next two years. Because workplace automation isn’t about replacement, instead its focus is the future of work. We’re not saying every single role should be assessed and then some towering machine is constructed to undermine a skilled worker. It’s an analysis of how to improve your employee’s working life by removing menial tasks. Think of it more as a way to make everyone’s lives easier.
How is automation changing the workplace?
Living in a time of perpetual digital evolution, automation is significantly changing workplaces in every industry. In the last few years alone, we’ve seen the rise of hybrid workplace automation, smart spaces and marketing automation. Seemingly every day there’s a new update, program or app that can complete a task which used to eat into valuable time. And with that new availability, employees can broaden their scope and better utilize their workload.
Let’s say you wanted to put together a show-stopping presentation for an event. In the past this would be a static slideshow, and each layer or frame would be dense and time consuming to construct. And for those in creative roles, their hands would be tied for months on end and alterations would be difficult and time consuming.
Digital transformation, however, has meant that we can now introduce motion. Bringing a lifeless expository data dump bounding to the screen. And this use of computers allows for subtle manipulation at every level, and a quicker, clearer projection of what’s to come. Which inevitably gives the designer valuable time back to complete their assignments. More than that, it creates the space for enhanced creative thinking and less mundanity.
This may feel like quite a niche illustration, but it highlights the wider impact for the workplace. Because alterations to the fundamentals of how we work, expands the breadth of what can be achieved in the same space of time.
What are the benefits of workplace automation?
Whenever workplace automation comes up in conversation, it’s often met with scowling faces, slowly shaking heads and worried words. Which stems from a fear of obsolescence. The concept that the work done is either unappreciated or no longer needed. In fact, the opposite is true. It’s a statement from an employer that the labor is so valued, that it’s being invested in, to improve the employee’s experience.
People like familiarity, they like to know what their job is and what their day looks like. But when you’re able to remove a burdensome aspect of that job, you see a boost in productivity and performance. This is because the role quickly feels easier. And in more cases than not, not having to repeat the same task, over and over, significantly reduces human error.
There’s also the increased safety aspect. For certain fields, there’s an inherent risk that comes with a role. Take construction, for example: you need to protect your workers from immediate threats but also long-term slow burn risks such as repetitive strain injuries (RSI) and musculoskeletal disorders (MSD). By introducing workplace safety automation, you can actively safeguard your staff.
With more time efficiency and a healthier, motivated workforce, cost savings follow naturally.
Which keeps unwanted turnover low and makes your business more attractive to prospective hires, as well as new clients or investors.
What are the negatives of workplace automation?
Automation cannot do everything, there are skills and abilities which are simply irreplaceable. What’s more there’s also an invested trust in the ‘human touch.’ From payroll duties to deli counters, the final destination of any product or service, is a human customer or user.
And if there’s one thing humans are quite good at, it’s spotting something that feels fake or synthetic. It’s one of the reasons we pay premium rates for hand-crafted designer goods. A shoe off a factory line will get the job done, but we buy into the prestige of footwear cobbled by a lone individual in an apron, in some dusty Italian workshop.
From a company point of view, however, the prime workplace automation negative is that it comes with a hefty price tag.
Pre-operating costs take the form of new machinery, cutting-edge equipment and the infrastructure to install it all. This, naturally, then gives way to ongoing operational costs, in terms of both time and money, which must be invested in training.
And the wallet battering doesn’t stop there. More digital investment requires heightened specialized security. Because where’s the sense in building a network of impressive technological wonders, if every single one of them presents a new vulnerability for your organization? It would be like erecting a wire fence made entirely of weak links. Which is why you need to spring for comprehensive defenses to deter and prohibit calculated attacks.
Automation and AI in the workplace
The greatest misconception about artificial intelligence (AI) is that it’s something to be created, rather than something that will inevitably be discovered. Similarly, mankind didn’t ‘invent’ fire, we harnessed the rudimentary technology to conjure it at will. Then slowly perfected the method over the years. Which changed how our society looked and functioned for the rest of time.
The use of AI may not look like the dystopian visions of the 1980s or a forging of idyllic familial relationships between man and machine, but it’s already here and ingratiated into our daily lives. Nowhere more so, than the workplace. And the first real step, the foundation to achieving this, was automation. Programming a robot to do a simple yet time-consuming task: from assembling a single mechanical component over-and-over, night and day, to hunting through countless folders for a document with a single word printed on it.
We’ve all seen the power of AI grow and spread significantly over the last twenty years. Inch by inch, carving out a place in our lives. It’s taken the form of the installation of manufacturing robots, virtual travel agents, marketing chatbots, social media monitoring and automated financial investment.
And while so many people don’t think of these tools as AI, it’s important to understand the growing trends and potential of AI through workplace automation, in order to stay competitive.
What automation changes could there be to the workplace in the future?
Looking ahead, will we see automation completing lifesaving tasks like surgery or putting out fires? For the time being, it’s highly unlikely. But the reach of workplace automation means it’s not outside the realms of possibility.
What we will see, however, is more interaction with machines. And not simply an increase but a complete immersion. Roles across the workplace that may have felt completely disconnected from technology will see some level of automation. Due to this demand, the industrial landscape will shift. In the same way the leap in microchip technology saw global power change hands, nations, businesses and even individuals with the know-how to capitalize on this expanding frontier, will prosper.
The skills people will be trained for and in will also shift to fit the needs of the machine. Decades ago, to be able to type was considered a novelty specialist skill. Now, it’s a standard requirement held in the same regard as being able to read or write. As such, skills pertaining to automation will become vital.
Granted, automation itself is designed to make our lives easier but the more reliance we have on it, the more maintenance it will require. And eventually, the sort of jobs advertised will reflect this; as robots need technicians, computers need programmers and humans will need training in all of it.
And how can businesses adapt to these automation changes?
Adaptation is a matter of survival. You can dig your heels in and refuse but the tide of automation is already knee-deep, with an even greater wave close on the horizon. And, as we’ve outlined, this future isn’t something that should be feared or resisted, but embraced.
Those with vested interests will bark that the first step is to sink a ton of cash into speculative endeavors. But the best starting point is a simple change of mind set. By instilling an attitude and culture of ongoing learning and openness to what’s possible, you gear your entire workforce for automation revolutions to come.
What’s more, with workplace automation allowing you to lift your head away from the grindstone, employees can look around and see how the rest of the company operates. How they are all connected. And this harmony and collaboration to increase agility and productivity can be prepared for with organizational restructuring to focus on cross-functional teamwork.
So, if you want to make an impact now, that will save yourself future exertion, you need to be researching, reorienting, retraining, redeploying and hiring new talent.
To learn how HR automation can optimize employee and candidate experiences, sign up for our on-demand webinar today.
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