Can robots help your business be more human?

Robotic Process Automation may sound like an impersonal replacement, but it could make workplaces far more people-friendly, says EY’s Martin Weis

studying robot

Everyone knows that robots can help on a production line or in warehouses. But they also have a history of filling jobs previously done by people.

Fears of this kind arose after publication in 2015 of the best-selling book Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future. More recently, the Annual Report of the White House and the Council of Economic Advisers warned that millions of low-paying jobs are at risk of being automated out of existence.

But despite these warnings, Martin Weis, EMEIA Robotics Leader, EY, says that Robotic Process Automation (RPA) could be welcomed by the very people whose jobs may seem most at risk from its introduction. RPA is the software that allows automation of back-office manual tasks. It’s the future of many administrative functions and is set to enable office staff to automate routine tasks by themselves using common automation tools, thereby freeing up their capacity for higher-value work.

“RPA removes repetitious but labor-intensive work, like large-scale manual data entry, and enables people to instead focus on what matters,” Weis says. 

Can robots improve staff retention?

Multiple studies show that many people don’t enjoy their jobs. They find large parts of their job to be dull or repetitive and, as a result, they aren’t engaged and aren’t as productive as they could be.

The drudgery and low pay associated with repetitive manual processes often creates staff retention problems

Martin Weis, EMEIA Robotics Leader, EY

“There’s a long tail of processes that haven’t been automated yet,” says Weis. “The reality for many businesses today is that the drudgery and low pay associated with repetitive manual processes often creates staff retention problems.” This not only drives up costs, but also means businesses could be losing promising talent for the future.

“People don’t really stick with these jobs for more than two years,” Weis says. “You may need to hire 20 [percent] to 30 percent each year to renew the workforce that is doing these repetitive tasks. RPA could help to reduce this churn and make work more interesting for many people.”

Helping humans become less robotic

George Brooks, People Advisory Services Leader, Americas, EY, says, “We need to take the robot out of the human – through the faster adoption of technology, automation and robotics. Do this successfully and we will increase efficiencies, drive down costs and reduce failure rates. And most importantly, we will be able to make up some of the workforce shortfall.” 

“There will always be errors and somebody needs to take care of these,” says Weis. “So we will still need human judgment and analytical interpretation. This is where our efforts should be refocused.”

As well as overseeing and interpreting the output of robotic systems that are taking on the “boring work,” we will also be freed up to focus on the activities machines can’t perform. Brooks says, “RPA actually enables us to ‘get back to human’ and engage in relationships, activities and projects that are more inspiring and align with our purpose. RPA will help eliminate the ‘stress’ often associated with mechanical complex tasks and allow us to ‘re-center’ and improve our productivity and creativity.”  

RPA actually enables us to ‘get back to human’ and engage in relationships, activities and projects that are more inspiring and align with our purpose.

George Brooks, People Advisory Services Leader, Americas, EY

Furthermore, with more humans working on creative strategy, innovation or even customer relations, the behavior, values and brand image of an organization are more likely to be imbued with human characteristics and a sense of empathy with customers. Perhaps such a development will finally rid corporations of the unwelcome and “robot-like” accusation leveled at so many – that they are “cold” and “faceless.”

For example, a consistent complaint from many customers of large organizations, particularly in sectors like energy and utilities, is that the customer often struggles to make contact to speak with a person from the organization. Though humans who answer the phone are more expensive than automated systems or FAQs on a website, redeploying people displaced by RPA from the back office to the front line of customer service may reap long-term rewards through an improved customer experience.

robot handshake

Beating the global skills shortage

Weis recommends that businesses planning to implement RPA should include training for employees affected by the transition. “When moving from an execution mode to a control mode, you need a program to teach people automation – you up-skill people, you train people.”

With the savings in recruitment costs and efficiency brought in by the introduction of RPA, this retraining of staff should be affordable in the short term. And with a rising global skills shortage, it could prove a valuable long-term investment. Retaining employees will become even more important as RPA programs are implemented because there is a growing shortage of the specialist skills needed to manage the business process software that drives RPA. 

If you really have a clear communication strategy upfront and a perspective for these people, they see a little helping hand in robots – and not a job killer.

Martin Weis, EMEIA Robotics Leader, EY

This is why the people involved in process-driven roles should be most enthusiastic about RPA, says Weis – and they would be far more likely to welcome RPA if they knew they would be retrained to perform more creative tasks further up the value chain.

“If you really have a clear communication strategy up front and a vision for the staff affected, they really cooperate,” Weis says. “They see a little helping hand in robots – and not a job killer.”

Instead of viewing RPA as a path to job reduction, we need to embrace it as liberation from repetitious activities. Implemented effectively and sensitively, it could help us become much more productive – giving people time to focus on the more strategic or creative tasks that are more closely aligned with an organization’s defining purpose. 

 

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