The Bots are Coming – How to Allay Employees Fears of Robotic Process Automation (RPA)

It’s funny – most jokes made in the workplace usually revolve around the mundane, repetitive, and flat-out uninspired moments of daily office life.  The show The Office revolves around this very premise, and it resonated so strongly with Americans because it’s true – so much of daily office work is clogged up by routine processing matters that lift the very life out of the day.  We make light of the ridiculously boring aspects of office and clerical work, and love to chuckle at how absurd the routine can seem.

What’s ironic, however, is when existentially challenged by the oncoming RPA revolution, many of these same workers (who love to laugh at their job’s routine absurdity) take a defensive posture.  They, along with many others, legitimately fear their spot in the company will be whisked away and replaced by a more efficient and cheaper (no health care!) robot.  From this perspective, they would prefer nothing changes, so long as they hold onto the current job that they would otherwise joke about by the water cooler.

This article is designed to synthesize several well-researched sources to help make one-point clear: RPA (Robotic Process Automation) will not diminish the total number of jobs available.  It will free up everyone’s time on routine tasks, creating more jobs (and more free time to work on more inspired and challenging issues) than previously imagined.  RPA may change the purpose and tasks of a job, but it won’t eliminate more occupations than it produces as its focus is on increasing productivity and efficiency. 

                Let’s start by briefly defining the core definition of RPA – the seamless automation and integration of tasks previously performed solely by humans.  These tasks involve a high level of structure and repetition – picture a robot programmed to approve or deny thousands of credit applications based on pre-determined financial standards.  More obvious examples of RPA for businesses come in the form of automating payroll, automating standard business processing requests (speeding up approval times), and synthesizing bits of data all into one interface for employees to make more informed and effective decisions.  With RPA dominating the tasks we joke about being “boring”, employers and employees will suddenly have the capacity to look beyond the rote tasks of the day and, instead, put their mental energies toward what their future should look like and solving new challenges previously put on hold due to their never being enough time in the day. 

Now, one of your workers might immediately interject: “How can you be so confident Robotic Processing Automation will create more jobs that it replaces, and how can you ensure I’ll still have a spot at the company?  The answer is simple – there are several historical precedents that quite perfectly parallel and mirror the current debate over Robotic Process Automation

Let’s start with the classic example of the burgeoning ATM technological advancement in the 1980s.  At the time, the US held roughly 60,000 ATMS compared to 485,000 bank tellers.  A debate raged that as ATMS grew in prominence, the “bank teller” occupation would comparatively disappear in a linear or, even worse, exponential fashion.  However, by 2002, the number of ATMS did in fact increase to 352,000…. but so did the number of bank tellers, which grew by roughly 40,000.  Hardly a “job destroyer,” the ATM/bank teller example demonstrates that technological advancements hardly make employees obsolete; they make the ways and methods by which employees previously did their job obsolete.  Even with AI, technology serves a complement to human workers, not as a replacement. 

                Another example comes in a stark, yet revealing, statistic.  At the turn of the 20th century, almost half of all Americans worked in agriculture.  Imagine meeting ten strangers in a McDonald’s present-day, and literally half of them tell you, “I work growing potatoes.”  Such a scenario would never happen in modern times because technology opened the doors for society to further diversify its industrial capacity.   Today, only 2% of all Americans work in agriculture, yet we produce more food than ever, with unemployment currently at its lowest level in nearly 50 years (~4%). 

In other words, Americans kept the same proportion of total jobs, exponentially expanded food production, yet millions of Americans gained the freedom to leave agriculture and build up other crucial industries ( e.g. – health care, technology, energy, communication, entertainment, etc…).   Again, moving forward no one cannot promise workers their jobs will stay the exact same as before the RPA revolution.  However, we absolutely can assure them that any changes RPA brings are intended to offload the parts of their jobs that before sapped such a large portion of their mental and physical energy.  Instead of spending each end of the month manually crunching the proper payroll numbers, employees could spend their time figuring out how to build further development and cohesion among their company, while a robot flawlessly executes the rote financial, HR, and other now automated procedures.

                Naturally, workers might get suspicious when upper-management talks about RPA creating time for “higher-level tasks designed for human creativity, instead of hours toiling away at the same routine procedures.”  A skeptical worker might see these cliché statements and wonder, “Ok… do you need me for that, or have you rhetorically found a way to make me sound like I am part of the bigger picture when I’m really not?  How can I trust these statements?  How will I make a living from here?”  It’s generally understood that all these questions, in some form or another, burn in the back of employees’ minds.  While there is no crystal ball that allows one to answer this question perfectly, we rely on how previous historical technologies did not eliminate jobs, but instead opened up new opportunities that created better opportunities at life for millions of Americans. 

With input from workforces around America, we trust the RPA revolution will provide a satisfying shock with just how much time workers will have to build their position forward instead of maintaining the status quo month-to-month.  It should help restructure our work force in a positive way that helps to create and maintain a low unemployment level. While we know such powerful technology can strike fear into the American work force, such a development will always serve as a complement, not a replacement, to humans. 

To bring back a little comedic irony, we will not repeat the mistakes of the Matrix!  Humanity is why we create businesses and conduct commerce in the first place; humanity will always remain the center of our world.  In an evolutionary sense, machines are just the next step in the incredible ability to harness the mind & to create tools that better shape our reality.  We need not fear our evolutionary growth & development; we can embrace the technology & tools our minds help create.

Would a Bot Improve Your Workplace & Increase Efficiency?

According to Forbes, 92% of organizations noticed an improvement in employee satisfaction after implementing RPA. Bots aren’t taking over jobs, instead they’re acting as digital assistants that empower employees to increase productivity, improve efficiency of legacy systems and applications, and deliver an enhanced customer experience. 

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