How will automation change the human workplace?

Discussions about the future of the workplace and the growth of automation almost inevitably include its impact on jobs – both positive and negative. Understandably, the focal point is often on the risks to employment, especially given stats such as those from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) that say that roughly 7.4 percent of jobs in England are in immediate danger of becoming obsolete due to automation.

On the face of it, the predictions frequently seem dire. Depending on where (and when) you look, the potential job losses created by automation could run into the tens of millions in specific industries alone. Last year, for instance, the BBC reported on a study by Oxford Economics that predicted around 20 million manufacturing jobs worldwide could be “replaced by robots by 2030”.

But in contrast, the World Economic Forum (WEF) recently estimated machines would eliminate 85 million jobs by 2025, but during the same period, 97 million new jobs would be created. It’s by no means a foregone conclusion that automation is destined to serve employers better than workers, but taking a step back, it’s easy to see why automation is building significant and widespread momentum across the economy. For example, online grocery retailer, Ocado, has invested heavily in the development of fully automated warehouses around the UK. According to a BBC report earlier this year, Ocado’s long-term ambition is to become “a people-free platform.” As it stands, their warehouses have reduced the number of employees required to package over 300,000 unique customer baskets every, achieving greater efficiency and accuracy than their human counterparts.

On a broader level, advocates of automation point to a wide variety of advantages. During spikes in demand, for example, robots are able to continue working around the clock, while the upkeep and maintenance of these machines is, ultimately, cheaper than the equivalent cost of human employment. It’s also relevant to highlight its role in efforts to build sustainability across the economy, with automation offering the prospect of improving environmental performance of many businesses over the long term.

A human cost or oppportunity?

In some organizations, the difficult reality is that automation will mean there is limited scope for existing employees to be retained in their existing roles. Many of the jobs most vulnerable are those in transportation, manufacturing and storage, among others. However, that fails to present a complete picture, with up to 56 percent of finance, accounting and payroll jobs also potentially vulnerable to the adoption of automated software solutions.

In contrast, the jobs least at risk are those that are ‘highly-skilled’, requiring human constant involvement, experience and creativity. Lawyers, healthcare professionals, teachers and artists are all considered to be amongst the careers least in danger of being automated in the near future.

But automation isn’t being pursued with only workforce reduction – and cost savings – in mind, and in many organizations it has resulted in staff having more time for jobs that cannot be performed by workplace technology. For instance, reducing monotonous tasks (those that are easily automated) has been shown to increase workplace happiness and productivity, enabling organizations to tap into the creative potential of their workforce in a manner not previously available to them.

The extent to which this will change the status quo across many job types and levels is gradually becoming clearer. Gartner, for instance, points towards the “hyperautomation of routine work” – meaning that “any processes that can be automated should be automated.” They go on to predict that by 2024, 69 percent of what a manager currently does will be automated. In practical terms, this means that, “In the future only two sets of tasks will remain for managers: Strategy setting, which requires creativity; and advanced team management, which requires social skills,”

Perhaps as a result, there has also been a growing focus on developing skills for the future. Within accounting, for example, there is growing acceptance of the role played by Robotic Process Automation (RPA), Machine Learning (ML) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) within the workplace. Big Data (data sets that have been traditionally too large to process and analyze) is now at the center of data analysis, especially for large organizations that have collated masses of data for decades and are now finding ways to manipulate it to achieve new insights. As a result, these technical skills are now increasingly at the forefront of teaching and career development, enabling professionals to focus on capabilities that will only continue to grow in importance.

Those people unfortunate enough to find their roles taken over by technology will need the opportunity, resources and support to retrain with new skills that are better suited to jobs of the future. For instance, there are many significant staff shortages within the UK job market, such as those in nursing where there are over 40,000 vacant positions. Similarly, the cybersecurity industry suffers from a chronic skills shortage and it’s incumbent on all stakeholders to help people bridge the gap between traditional roles now being handed over to automated technologies and these more skilled sectors of the jobs market where people will always be front and center.

And in a wider sense, macroeconomic, populations and employment trends may well more than balance the impact of automation on the jobs market. According to a 2020 research report from McKinsey and Co., for example, “while automation adoption will grow over the next decade, a shrinking labor force on the continent means that, by 2030, finding sufficient workers with the required skills to fill the jobs that exist and are being created in Europe may be challenging.”

Ultimately, key to the success of automation for everyone involved lies in adopting a holistic approach to its role in the workplace of the future. This means that as organizations integrate automation into their business models, there must be equivalent emphasis on re-skilling and up-skilling employees so they can thrive in this rapidly changing environment. Not only will this help businesses achieve their efficiency goals, but it will also provide the economy with the skills it needs in the years to come.

Hugh Scantlebury, founder, director and CEO, Aqilla

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