Technology and Automation in the Workplace

by James Malia on Aug 21, 2017 12:00:00 AM

Are the machines about to take over?

Artificial intelligence is no longer a fantasy. Technology and automation are changing everyday tasks to make our lives even easier such as driverless cars, or Google Glass beaming public transport updates to your eyes. You can even buy Marty McFly's self-lacing trainers from Back to the Future now.

Looking at how we work, technology and automation has benefited how employees interact with one another allowing better collaboration with colleagues, anytime, anywhere, nearly on every device. It's also provided  more opportunities for communication as well as increasing security.     

But while automation has changed the workplace, it's also putting workers under threat. Jobs such as delivery drivers, data entry and telemarketers are in danger of being replaced by robots, with a recent report by PwC revealing up to 30% of existing UK jobs could be at risk of automation over the next 15 years.

Automation is changing work

Digital disruption is something businesses are currently facing and will deal with more as technology continues to improve. That doesn't mean robots will replace everyone's jobs, but it will influence how employees work.

Artificial intelligence has transformed the automotive industry and, although machines are part of the production line, employees within the sector still make valuable contributions to the industry – which has resulted in UK car production reaching a 17-year high.

Companies such as Amazon are trying to revolutionise how we shop with automation. Last year it introduced their concept of a shop with no checkouts or queues. Amazon Go allows users to open their Amazon app, scan their phone as they enter, and do their weekly shop as normal – and it will all be charged to their account once they leave. 

While it's a revolutionary concept, it's not quite there yet, as technical errors are still holding the launch back. The damaging thing is that it doesn't consider the effect it could bring to supermarket workers, with Amazon suggesting its Go stores will only have a maximum of ten human employees, and only six people per shift. The retail industry in the UK currently employs 2.8 million people, the biggest sector in Britain for employment - and this puts a lot of jobs at risk.

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Automation and technology will also impact the new generations entering work, with 60% of Australian students training for jobs that will be transformed by automation, or not exist in the future, according to a study by the Foundation of Young Australians.

Robots could also replace public sector roles, with 250,000 workers at risk of losing their job to automation within the next 15 years according to thinktank Reform – which suggests it could pave the way for a more flexible way of working and encourage public sector workers to adopt a gig economy.        

Despite the fear of automation for some employees, John Hawksworth, chief economist at PwC highlighted it could have positive effects to the UK job market:

Automating more manual and repetitive tasks will eliminate some existing jobs, but could also enable some workers to focus on higher value, more rewarding and creative work, removing the monotony from our day jobs.

 

"The UK employment rate is at its highest level now since comparable records began in 1971, despite all the advances in digital and other labour-saving technologies we have seen since. It is not clear that the future will be radically different from the past in terms of how automation will affect overall UK employment rates.

Employees need to come first

Change is a fundamental part of society, with processes becoming quicker and problems getting solved more easily. Automation is a change, but it doesn't mean businesses will become robotic overnight.

The industrial revolution experienced quicker weaving processes as a result of automation, but as James Bessen, economist at the Boston University School of Law told The Economist, it prompted "workers to focus on the things machines could not do, such as operating a machine, and then tending multiple machines to keep them running smoothly. This caused output to grow explosively."

When the computer first came into businesses, people were concerned with it taking over jobs – but a majority of offices still rely heavily on users to operate them to perform tasks. With more automation coming into everyday workplace practices, staff need to adapt and develop skills to suit these changes. For this to happen, employers need to invest more in their employees through training.

Millennials and Generation Z will likely be the group most able to adapt, given that they've grown up with technology for most of their lives. Deloitte also found this to be the case, with their recent survey of millennials revealing that 62% believe productivity in the workplace will increase as a result of automation – compared to just 40% who think technology will put their jobs at risk.

58% of millennials expect businesses to provide them with learning opportunities that are relevant to their job, showing that there may be a correlation between wanting to learn more as technology continues to advance, putting their careers under threat.

Allowing workers to improve their skillset can help reduce anxiety around potential job losses, making them more satisfied with their job security because of the business's commitment to invest in them. Employers will also be rewarded with having knowledgeable staff who can offer more to their company, making the process beneficial to both parties.

Offering extra learning opportunities for employees through your employee benefits scheme can also help keep personnel focused, and feeling more confident about themselves, boosting employee motivation and engagement.

Currently, actual robots buzzing around the office is still science fiction, but communication is crucial to easing staff worries about automation replacing them. If businesses are clear of their intentions from the outset, employees aren't kept in the dark about what's going on behind the scenes.

Automation may have a massive influence on how businesses operate in the future, so employers and employees need to keep an open mind to the benefits, as they could offer more creativity and take away mundane tasks. The automation debate isn't going to go away, but personnel concerns can be addressed if businesses are open and honest about the future – even if they're unsure themselves.

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