Automation anxiety: 3 ways to reassure your people

Written by Robert Gould  •  Future of work  •  11 January 2022

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Over the last few years, automation has flourished in the conditions set by the Covid-19 pandemic. A 2020 survey by Deloitte found that more than two-thirds of companies used automation to cope with the challenges presented by lockdowns, supply chain disruptions, newly redundant roles and a distributed workforce. Yet the shift towards digital dominance had already been firmly underway.

In 2019, a study conducted prior to the pandemic by the UK Government Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport stated that at least 82% of online advertised openings across the UK required digital skills. This research also highlighted significant wage differentials between roles that required these skills and those that did not. In retrospect, it is clear that the pandemic simply accelerated the inevitable advancement of the digital agenda.  

According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), 1.5 million people in England are currently at high risk of losing their jobs to automation. This anxiety appears to be reflected in our UK Skills Report – more than half of the professionals we surveyed expressed concerns that automation replacing all or parts of their current job.

Businesses cannot be expected to completely resist this new age of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and automation. But our research shows that the uncertainty surrounding AI and the role it will play within the workplace can be a source of stress for employees. It is therefore crucial that employers communicate their own digital agenda to their people in an honest yet sensitive manner.

What is workplace automation?

Workplace automation refers to the use of technology applications to perform repetitive tasks with minimal human input. Whether the task is physical or data-driven in nature, automation can help businesses streamline operations, drive business growth and scalability, improve customer experiences, contain costs and avoid potential human errors.

Practically every sector can enjoy the benefits of automation – from marketing (automated messages to customers, e.g. abandoned cart emails) and customer relationships (chatbots to address customer queries), to HR (automated processes for payroll, expenses, etc.) and data analytics (tools to discover and predict trends). However, it’s important to note that automation is more advanced in some sectors than others – including marketing and manufacturing – while areas  such as HR and recruitment are still playing catch-up.

Why employees are worried

Automation is expected to impact certain industries more than others. For example, 60% of roles in food preparation are at risk of being made redundant, while just under 60% of manufacturing jobs are also under threat. Nevertheless, as the AI debate continues, professionals from all backgrounds will understandably begin to worry about their future – especially when some outlets report that 375 million jobs worldwide will be lost to automation by 2030.

Interestingly, our research reveals that automation anxiety grows with seniority. While 40% of the graduates/early career professionals we surveyed expressed concern about automation, this rose to 48% for middle managers, 58% for senior managers, and 63% for directors and C-suite executives. This suggests a more certain future for the younger generations in the workforce, particularly Generation Z, who have grown up surrounded by technology and are more prepared to adapt to changing trends.

How employers can help

When speaking to your employees about automation, here are three talking points that can help you reassure them of their future.

AI create jobs and evolve careers

One aspect of AI that is often overlooked is its potential to create new job opportunities. While automation could pose a threat to low-skilled roles, it is also likely to create different kinds of jobs that require either soft skills – which automation cannot replicate, e.g. empathy, leadership, creativity – or brand-new skill sets that can be developed through training. For example, while chatbots help streamline the process of gathering customer queries, a human employee will need to be available to conduct nuanced conversations.

Prepare to see more and more roles related to automation appear, such as engineers and testers. Augmented reality (AR) is another one to look out for – the market is expected to see a tenfold increase in value by 2023. In fact, while a report from the World Economic Forum estimates that 85 million jobs will be displaced, the report also predicts the creation of around 97 million new roles as a result of automation.

In addition, AI can evolve and future-proof existing careers. For example, in order to explore the potential uses of bots for recruitment teams, we set out to build bespoke chatbot named Dot to answer common questions directed at our client’s Contractor Care teams – in real time, 24 hours a day. Training was provided to enable the team to add knowledge every time Dot was unable to answer a question, enabling it to improve over time. They saw a decrease in the number of queries they were dealing with, while the provision of training undertaken to operate and optimise the chatbot helped upskill the team’s technical knowledge and digital aptitude.

AI benefits employees

Employees will be less resistant to automation if they clearly understand that it can benefit them – and not just the company’s bottom line.

Automation can be ideal for handling repetitive, predictable processes, giving human employees the freedom to focus on tasks that are genuinely fulfilling and engaging. In the manufacturing industry, automation can also significantly reduce the risk of workplace injuries that occur through activities such as heavy lifting and contact with harmful objects or substances.

One way to ensure employees understand the advantages of AI is by asking them to consider the mundane, time-consuming processes they engage in that offer little reward, and then explore tools and platforms that can automate these tasks. This will help your people feel involved in the automation conversation, and valued by the business.

AI is already here

Once employees understand that automation is already a part of their professional and personal lives, they will find the concept less intimidating.

Take predictive spelling as an example. Tools such as autocomplete and spellcheck help us improve our efficiency every day – whether we’re sending an email, drafting content with Microsoft Word, or creating a spreadsheet with Excel. By demystifying the concept and encouraging employees to adopt a new perspective, you can help them understand the true purpose of automation: to help them save time and become more productive.

Download our UK Skills Report to discover the most in-demand skills for the new world of work, best practices for upskilling your talent, employee insights and more.

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