This article was updated on July 26, 2018.
Most North Americans are hopeful an increase in workplace automation will have a positive impact on their lives. Still, some are concerned. Twenty-four percent in the U.S. and 33 percent in Canada surveyed said they're afraid more automated tasks will hinder job security, according to the ADP Research Institute® The Evolution of Work: The Changing Nature of the Global Workplace report.
But implementing new technology in the workplace doesn't have to crowd out — or stress out — employees. Instead, HR leaders can take steps to gently implement automation, giving employees space to take on more strategic tasks.
Here are four ways to automate your workplace while being mindful of your employees.
1. Remember the Past
For more than two centuries people have predicted machines would replace humans in the workplace — but it hasn't happened yet. In fact, in most cases automating tasks increases the need for human workers to do other tasks, according to The Economist. During the industrial revolution, for instance, textile workers protested that machines powered by steam engines would eliminate their livelihoods. In the early 1960s, President John F. Kennedy said one of the country's main challenges was to "maintain full employment at a time when automation ... is replacing men." And when personal computers appeared in the 1980s, people again worried jobs would be lost. However, it's become clear over the past 200 years that, while machines may change the skills needed, they have not eliminated the need for human workers.
2. Communicate Needs
Communicate your plans and expectations when bringing in new machines and robots. Employees may see workplace automation and assume they'll no longer be needed, but they're likely to be needed in different capacities or locations. When computerized machines were first introduced on factory floors, many leaders assumed workers would become "unskilled machine tenders," reports The Wall Street Journal. Instead, the new machines resulted in a "higher demand for people who could do abstract reasoning and control those machines."
For example, when ATMs were introduced, people thought it would eliminate the need for bank tellers, explains the The Economist. While ATMs did reduce the number of tellers at each branch, they also reduced the cost of operating a bank branch — and allowed banks to open more branches. The result was a greater need for bank workers because of the greater number of branches.
Automation plays into another prevalent trend in the global workplace — the need for employees to constantly shift roles and learn new skills quickly, according to The Evolution of Work. Employees can better adjust to those changes when HR communicates openly. Consider how automation may shift demand for employee skills and take time to communicate those potential changes to employees.
3. Provide Training
If the rise of automation in the workplace will demand new skills, you can counter that by offering development opportunities to help employees fill the skills gap. For instance, a former bank teller may now focus more on sales and customer service tasks that can't be conducted by a machine. With training, a person already familiar with the business can easily transition to that role.
If facilitating new training seems overwhelming, consider the possibility of automating the training programs as well. This allows employees to access training modules via their computers or mobile devices. We're moving towards a future where people use technology to learn anything, anytime, anywhere, per The Evolution of Work study, with more than 80 percent of employees surveyed by the study feeling positive about this trend. So mobile training may be just what's needed to embrace a more automated work environment.
Machines were invented to make human work easier. But the workplace becoming more automated doesn't eliminate the need for humans — it moves them forward. HR leaders can still ensure employees feel like valuable members of the team by helping them understand that the rise of automation won't lead to a reduction of roles, just a shift in responsibilities.
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