7 Steps to Rethink Jobs in the Age of Automation

Automation is likely to displace some office jobs, but many workers can still be useful to organizations.

Automation is disrupting the way we work. The first big change has come in the manufacturing sector. In “Reallocation and Technology: Evidence from the US Steel Industry,” The American Economic Review found that between 1962 and 2005, the steel industry lost around 75 percent of its workforce. However, shipments of steel remained largely unchanged due to newer technology that required fewer people.

Many office jobs and knowledge worker occupations are seeing automation change their work as well. Naturally, this has many worried that the rise of automation and artificial intelligence, or AI, will replace them. Although there’s potential for companies to save on automating parts of their workforce, this doesn’t mean business leaders should simply lay off staff in favor of automation. Instead, leaders should consider ways to channel human worker knowledge, according to Ravin Jesuthasan, managing director and global practice leader at Willis Towers Watson, a research and advisory firm. “How do we make the most of all of that knowledge, experience and expertise, even if the mechanical aspects of their work have gone away?”

Here are seven steps to redefining roles while implementing automation:

  1. Deconstruct jobs to look for opportunities for automation. Jesuthasan said leaders should categorize a job’s activities into buckets: routine vs. nonroutine, and what’s transactional in nature vs. advisory or consultative. Routine and transactional tasks are most easily automated. “You then get a clear sense of where it makes sense to look at the possibility of automation,” Jesuthasan said.
  2. Look at where the business can apply the different types of automation.
    • Robotic process automation can replace routine, white-collar work.
    • Cognitive automation improves the quality of decision-making and interaction someone will have with a customer.
    • Social robotics are robots that work alongside humans to automate both routine and nonroutine tasks.

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  1. Understand the purpose of and the expectations for the capabilities of the automation and the timeline for changes, said Michelle Prince, senior vice president of talent management at Randstad North America Inc., a technology talent and solutions provider based in Atlanta. “That way, they’re able to first determine which processes are part of the automation, and then be able to determine which positions will change as a result of the process automation,” Prince said.
  2. Use a cross-functional team to handle the process of implementation. Business leaders should be clear on expectations of the investment; finance should be involved to understand the investment; human resources should follow the impact to the talent; and a program or project manager can serve as an objective person to ensure processes are well defined. Also, leaders should share plans with employees as soon as possible to alleviate potential fears. “As soon as people hear ‘robots’ or ‘artificial intelligence’ or ‘streamlining,’ the first thing people think about is whether or not my job is at risk,” Prince said. “The faster you can either manage expectations or alleviate that fear, the faster people can really focus on the positives of how do we leverage this artificial intelligence or this streamlined process.”

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  1. Find a service provider or vendor. And determine what will happen with your people, Jesuthasan said. A couple of questions for business leaders to ask themselves: Can you recombine the nonroutine, contextual work that workers do with other nonroutine human things to make them more productive and effective? Or are there new types of work you can rededicate this workforce to? In some instances, leaders might know upfront what roles the new technology will impact, Prince said. Also, roles could see refinement before implementation, which Prince said is likely based on past implementations of similar technology. Consultants will also have a good idea of how the technology will impact the workforce, although they won’t know for sure. “I caution that all implementations have some level of uniqueness,” Prince said. “Not all companies that implement the same automation will get the same result.”
  2. Train workers on the new system. “Any time you make a change to people’s day-to-day jobs, it creates uncertainty, it creates discomfort,” Prince said. “So from a change management perspective, communication, training and helping them really understand what the future is going to look like is critical.” This training could mean hiring someone who knows the upcoming system and can drive change from a knowledge perspective. Current employees, who will see the bulk of their work automated, could also benefit from additional training, especially around analytics. Rather than doing data entry all day, for example, the automation technology will do that for them, and they can find new ways of contributing to the organization by analyzing data and finding new efficiencies or ideas.
  3. Remember that not all automation implementations are alike. Prince said that some factors to keep in mind are the processes the business is streamlining, areas of the company addressed, capabilities of staff, goals and expectations of the business case for automation, along with the company’s philosophy of what they hope to do for people whose jobs have been put at risk.

Lauren Dixon is an associate editor at Talent Economy.

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