Fears about automation, its transformation of the workplace and effects on employment date back several decades. Fast forward to rapid recent advances in automation technologies, including AI, autonomous systems and robotics, and concerns are being raised anew — and with new urgency. However, the reality is that the technology will continue to evolve, as will our collective understanding of the economic implications.
Before we jump to conclusions, let’s take a step back and examine the potential workforce disruptions from automation and dig deeper into the new patterns that will emerge as the market continues to grow.
The Digital Workforce Defined
The digital workplace can best be considered as the natural evolution of the conventional workplace we’ve all known for decades. The digital workplace encompasses all the technologies people leverage to get work done efficiently in a connected workplace – a combination of humans working alongside machines, a.k.a., software bots. Today, a true digital workforce combines innovative cognitive technologies and analytics — in the form of easily deployable digital workers. Its ultimate purpose is to augment the work of humans by performing specifically assigned tasks controlled by a human.
Digital workforces will fundamentally alter our definition of work as we know it today. We take for granted that work is defined as five days a week and eight hours a day. Before automation in manufacturing, the industrial workweek was six days a week and 12-hour days. Thanks in large part to automation, we now have a current work week of approximately 40 hours. What might happen to this standardized workweek once digital workforces are broadly implemented? I suspect we might all be pleasantly surprised.
In the hybrid people/bot workforce of the future, people will slowly take on work they are naturally inclined to do best, such as solving complex problems creatively. Bots will own the monotonous tasks. To address the elephant in the room, technology adoption can and often does cause short-term labor displacement, but history shows that, in the longer run, it creates a multitude of new jobs and unleashes demand for existing ones, more than offsetting the number of jobs it destroys even as it raises labor productivity.
A New Workforce Paradigm
Research suggests that rising productivity is usually accompanied by employment growth, as it raises incomes which are then spent, creating demand for goods and services across the economy. Consider how quickly the workforce has evolved. For instance, these four jobs didn’t exist 10 years ago: on-demand car service driver, driverless car engineer, social media manager and cloud computing scientist.
Just as the advent and widespread adoption of enterprise databases created an ecosystem of jobs, so too will the maturation and adoption of the digital workforce. For example, we are seeing a whole host of new jobs emerge, such as bot analyst, bot administrator and bot supervisor, among others.
Personally, I witnessed a large Fortune 100 company go through this shift. It now has bots running in 40 of its departments, and one employee in particular who used to be a business analyst is now a bot analyst. In another instance, someone who processed repetitive customer inquiries and invoices now runs the robotic department for the company. The point being that organizations, their cultures and people will all adapt to this new workforce paradigm. Eventually, the current workforce will evolve from owning mundane tasks to delegating them to bots while taking on for themselves a more authoritative role.
One Generation’s Disruption Is The Next’s Norm
A true digital workforce can’t be built overnight. Companies that want to start down the road of adopting a digital workforce must first have a willingness to change and recognize that the world around them is changing. There must be support from top leaders to realize this change. An organization will also need a center of excellence to operationalize this change.
Concurrently, it’s imperative that organizations communicate clearly with employees about why they are moving in this new direction, how they plan to do it, what it means for employees and how, in the long run, these changes will help employees become more attractive hires because of new in-demand skills they will have learned. For example, AT&T has implemented a huge bot-driven workforce internally and trained more than 3,000 current employees on how to build, manage and deploy them.
Automation will have a less impact on jobs that require managing people, applying expertise and social interaction, tasks for which machines are unable to match human performance for now. Just as humanity advanced from horses, to steam energy, to fossil fuels and to renewable energy, the emerging digital workforce is another disruption waiting to happen. Why am I so confident about the future of a digital workforce? Because, it will make our lives better irrevocably.