Change is constant in today’s tech-driven world. Automation, machine learning, and robotics are radically transforming how we work; these technologies have the potential to free us from mundane, repetitive tasks. However, they could also displace some workers in the process. Before making automation a part of their strategy, leaders need to understand and prepare for how it will impact their employees.
"There is a tendency to focus on job loss and which jobs are likely to be eliminated as a result of automation,” says Jamie Merisotis, author of the book Human Work In the Age of Smart Machines. “Not only is this a fool’s errand—nobody really knows how technology will change particular industries, much less specific organizations—the approach is misguided because technology has always tended to create more jobs than it destroys and there is no reason to think it will be any different this time.”
A more constructive approach, Merisotis says, is to understand that jobs—all of them—are constantly being transformed as automation takes over more tasks.
“Both employers and workers need to examine the tasks their jobs consist of and think about which ones could be automated as artificial intelligence becomes smarter,” says Merisotis, who is CEO of the Lumina Foundation, an independent, private foundation in Indianapolis committed to generating opportunities for learning beyond high school. “But they also need to think about the tasks that machines can’t do—those that rely on uniquely human traits and abilities. I call this human work, and it is the work of the future.”
To prepare for this, leaders need to create a well-thought-out change management plan that hits on four key areas:
1. Identify Automation-ready Areas
Certain tasks are more prone to automation than others, and it’s essential that organizations start the process of identifying positions that could be displaced or changed.
“AI will allow almost all repetitive tasks to be automated,” says Merisotis. “It doesn’t matter whether it is manual or mental, nor does it matter how much technical expertise or skill is needed to perform it. If the task is repetitive and therefore predictable, it can be reduced to an algorithm and automated.”
2. Address Employee Concerns
Employees need to be kept abreast of any transition. Thirty-seven percent of workers are worried they’ll lose their jobs due to automation, according to research from PwC. In reality, a Brookings Institution study says that only 25% of jobs are at high risk for automation, with at least 70% of their task load capable of being done by machines.
While their concerns may or may not be justified, employers should be transparent about what the future may hold, communicating how changes will affect teams. Employees should feel empowered to speak up and share feedback. A corporate culture that is ready to transform treats their employees as valued partners.
3. Help Employees Upskill
While employees may be concerned, many are also optimistic. A survey by the International Federation of Robotics found that even as jobs are being eliminated by automation, nearly 70% of workers expressed hope about higher-skilled employment. An organization’s automation plan needs a blueprint for training at-risk employees to transition to new roles.
“All workers need the opportunity to develop the skills and abilities human work requires, and employers must play a key role in making this happen,” says Merisotis. “A big part of this is assuring that all workers have the chance to continue learning throughout their life and career.”
In order to prepare employees for the work of the future, Merisotis says employers must use transparent frameworks to define exactly what they need their workers to know and be able to do and make that information available to all current and future workers.
“Without it, it’s almost impossible for at-risk workers to know how to stay in—much less re-enter—the job market,” he says.
Investing in training is an investment in the organization. For example, health services giant Cigna found that employees who had participated in its education program were more likely to be promoted and were significantly more likely to be retained, resulting in $1.29 in return for every dollar invested, reports CFO Magazine.
4. Update Hiring Practices
As automation changes staffing needs, organizations will also need to hire new employees who possess the soft skills that are needed in the new working environment. Technical skills and knowledge still matter, but workers need to be able to apply them to solve problems in ever-changing circumstances.
“It’s no surprise that more and more jobs involve working in the most unpredictable environment of all—around other people,” says Merisotis. “Think about IT professionals who regularly apply their technical knowledge to help people solve problems in real-world situations. Workers who have insufficiently developed human abilities like abstract reasoning, interpersonal communication, and empathy will have trouble in a future where smart machines can take over routine tasks.”
Merisotis says there are really only four skills that people need to thrive in the new world of human work: critical thinking, ethical reasoning, ease with interpersonal interaction, and empathy.
“Whatever the occupation or industry, these are the skills that workers and employers will rely on in the future,” he says.
Automation Can Augment, Rather Than Replace Employees
Technology doesn’t have to replace employees; it can be used to enhance their work and output. In fact, 57% of employers say that the main goal of automation is to augment worker performance, according to a survey by Willis Towers Watson. By automating away busywork and investing in employee development, companies can enjoy higher productivity, higher morale, and an improved employer brand that will make it easier to attract and retain top talent.
While writing his book, Merisotis learned that many of the new human work occupations combine tasks performed by machines with work that draws on the unique abilities of people. For example, Cummins Inc., a $26 billion manufacturer of diesel engines and power-generation equipment with 60,000 employees, employs collaborative robots, or “cobots,” to work alongside human employees and free them from repetitive or physically taxing tasks. “The same dynamic is playing out in job after job across the economy,” says Merisotis.
Our world is growing more complex, and it’s not just that employment requirements are constantly changing in ways that demand higher levels of thinking and skill.
“The knowledge, skills, and abilities people need to develop also are needed to help address the issues we face as a society and the problems we see in our communities,” he says. “The only way to meet this challenge is through continuous learning on a vast scale. Fortunately, we are hard-wired to learn, just as we are to work and serve.
“The companies that will flourish in the future are those that take an interest in developing their talent by positioning them for the meaningful work only humans can do while also recognizing people want to be involved in their communities, continue to learn, and live fulfilling lives."