Human-Centered Automation: The Present and Future of Work
The world of work is changing, and it’s changing faster than ever before. The adoption of technologies that created new opportunities for people to work remotely has been accelerated at an astounding rate due to Covid19. This has also made it easier for companies to scale their operations globally, leveraging talent beyond the pre-pandemic commute areas.
Digital transformation is happening in every industry, and its impact will be felt by everyone working in an organization. It will transform the way people work, how they collaborate, and how they learn new skills to stay relevant in the future. A crucial part of digital transformation is adopting automation, particularly as digital robots do not suffer from biological vectors such as Covid19, which makes them very attractive for businesses who desire guaranteed continuity when faced with global pandemics.
Automation and digital transformation are enabling businesses to shift much of the burden of repetitive activities undertaken by employees to be done by digital workers, without having to rip out and redevelop underlying systems completely. At the same time, digitization is enabling businesses to remove the need for an ‘employee-in-the-middle’ between the underlying systems of their enterprise and their customers. In principle, this shift can empower employees to focus on areas of the business that they are most passionate about. Handling higher-value tasks that require social interaction and emotional intelligence and exploring new ways to solve problems for the organization and create better solutions for customers.
Today, automation gradually makes life less repetitive for many employees, but there is much further to go. Whilst automating more mechanical tasks such as data entry and shifting data from one system to another can be found in many leading enterprises today, intelligent automation is fast-moving to take on more complicated use cases, including data analysis and decision-making. But with this change comes a whole new set of challenges that impact employees, which we need to address if we want everyone to thrive in the future of work. These include building greater trust with employees through effective dialogues and creating real opportunities for the workforce to up-skill.
Human-Centered Automation: The Future of Work?
Human-centered automation is the future of work. It is not something that will happen in the future, it has arguably been with us since the first industrial revolution. However, with advances in artificial intelligence, machine learning, and increasing interconnectivity of systems and data, the idea has taken on new meanings. Whilst the first generation of human-centered automations focused on replacing physical work through automation, arguably, the second generation has sought to replace the mechanical work we’ve been carrying out using computers. This third wave sometimes referred to as intelligent automation, has many distinct themes and features that are entirely new.
Interconnection between systems, sensors, and people, the seemingly exponential speed and velocity with which ‘old’ industries and ways of working are being replaced, as well as the wide range of sectors and firms that are experiencing disruption - all contribute to a rate of change that surpasses anything humanity has experienced throughout history.
We’ve already witnessed low-wage workers around the world feeling pressure from automation. Now, even higher skill level jobs, including some which we’ve generally regarded as domains for humans alone, leveraging skills such as creativity and decision making, are increasingly being automated or augmented through automation, with significant impact on our society and in particular with the workplace.
What Is Human-Centered Automation?
Human-centered automation provides people with the best possible tools for their work and makes their lives easier. It means making automation focus on not taking over jobs or replacing humans, but helping them do their job better, more exciting, and more efficiently.
Human-Centered Technology in the Modern Workplace
How to approach human-centered automation?
The current state of human-centered automation in the modern workplace is changing the way we work and how we feel about our jobs.
As technology advances, it becomes necessary for us to change our perspective on what it means to be an employee. The shift away from a traditional 9-5 workday has become more and more common in recent years, and some companies are even starting to adopt a four-day workweek. This shift towards flexible schedules has been made possible by introducing digital workplace design.
As part of designing a digital workplace with human-centered automation, we need to consider all aspects of how employees interact with their company’s technologies, colleagues, and customers. It is this design that may encourage or discourage worker productivity. Furthermore, without a clear set of design principles in place, it’s too easy to focus on operating costs without due consideration for employee experience.
Here are three fundamental principles in designing effective human-centered automation :
Humans as beneficiaries of automation
- Focus on outcomes for employees and customers, not just reducing operational costs.
- Employees are your organization's biggest asset with deep expertise and creative insights
- Engage them throughout designing new automations, to build processes that enhance experiences.
Unify human and digital workers
- Focus on how the human and digital workforce can work side by side. Digital workers and humans can make for a complementary team.
- Digital workers can help speed up tedious tasks, and human beings can focus on improving quality, managing complexity, and building stronger connections with customers. When these two working partners combine, they make the best team ever!
Up-skilling of the workforce for human-centered automation
- Be transparent about the new skills needed and how the workforce can close the gaps.
- Successful transformations require companies to provide all relevant employees with information about the skills they already have, the skills they will need to acquire, and how to close any gaps in knowledge.
- In a future where automation does a lot more, all workers would benefit from up-skilling on empathy, managing complexity across multiple knowledge domains, improvisation, and decision-making in ambiguity. Ensure the transformative efforts build in enhancing skills for employees.
How Employers Can Manage Risks Associated with Human-Centered Automation
“The machines are coming for our jobs!” it’s natural to worry about the impact of automation on one’s future. What will we do when the machines have taken over? The risk of employees being demotivated, worried, anxious, or even frightened is genuine. Especially given that automation has already transformed many industries, including manufacturing, retail, finance, and healthcare. The challenge is how to ensure that the workforce is prepared for this change before it happens.
Employers can manage these risks by preparing their employees for what is coming, investing in their employees’ skillsets, fostering greater trust and accountability about the direction and impacts of automations, and ensuring that they can contribute to the design and re-imagining of processes intertwined with automation, as well as providing a clear understanding of how and why to leverage our new digital co-workers to enhance the employees’ experiences.