For literally centuries, workers have been worried about the impact of technology on their jobs. As technology improves, the potential disruption only increases. The most obvious fear among workers concerning new technologies is that their jobs will become obsolete. History, of course, illustrates that these fears aren’t always paranoid fantasies. Factory workers, elevator operators, telephone operators, even travel agents, and grocery store cashiers are examples of jobs that have been eliminated or greatly reduced due to new technologies.
For businesses, however, technologies that improve efficiency and reduce labor costs offer a tremendous boon; and at the even broader macro-economic level, new technologies and innovations are at the heart of economic growth.
So how can an employer leverage the benefits of new technologies while mitigating the anxieties of existing employees? In this post, we’ll consider this question in the context of one set of technologies in particular: robotic process automation, or “RPA”.
What is RPA?
Perhaps the most confusing element of the term “robotic process automation” is the “robotic” part. Those unfamiliar with the term may jump to images of humanoid machines delivering mail or assembling widgets in a factory. RPA, however, is quite different from that.
The robots we're talking about are metaphorical software robots. These are computer applications programmed to perform tasks traditionally undertaken by humans. For example, an RPA chatbot could answer basic customer queries on a company website. These robots perform their tasks through the use of tools like artificial intelligence and natural language processing. Similarly, RPA could be used for data entry, transferring data from one application to another, or parsing data from invoices into an accounting system.
Why Does it Matter if Employees Don’t Like RPA?
Next, let's address a foundational question that some readers may be asking themselves: to what extent if at all, should employers care if their workers don't want to see the introduction or expansion of RPA in the workplace? Shouldn't these workers just be happy to get a paycheck?
We're being intentionally blunt and unfeeling for effect here, but this is a legitimate question. Of course, the answer is that it’s good business to have happy employees. The need for content workers must be balanced against other considerations like profitability and efficiency, but employee morale is a very important objective.
Unhappy employees make those around them unhappy. Employees who are worried about losing their jobs to a machine – whether or not such fears are valid – are more likely to look for other employment. Employees who feel like they aren’t appreciated and valued by their employers are less engaged and less likely to go the extra mile in performing their duties.
And, while the tight labor market isn’t a permanent factor, employers in today’s job climate generally can’t afford to rock the boat with employees too much, because those employees have a lot of options if they want to find a new job.
So, assuming employers should care about employee concerns over RPA adoption and expansion, how can employers put their employees’ minds at ease?
Why RPA Doesn’t Signal the End of Human Labor
Let's start with the big elephant in the room. RPA does NOT mean the elimination of human workers. Not by a long shot. Any form of automation or efficiency improvement is indeed likely to reduce the need for certain human workers to perform certain tasks, but it's not the apocalyptic scenario many workers dread. For hundreds of years, innovations have allowed machines to eliminate or reduce the need for humans to perform certain tasks, and yet unemployment doesn't sit at 90 percent. As new technologies emerge they create more opportunities, and entire new industries require new workers.
This doesn't mean there are no impacts on the labor market. New technologies often create some labor market displacement, meaning workers aren’t necessarily left with no job at all but may need to find a new job or learn new skills.
Relief from Menial, Dangerous, and Monotonous Work
Not all of that disruption is a net negative for workers, however. Often the jobs that are rendered obsolete by new technologies are menial, dangerous, and monotonous. How many law enforcement officials, for instance, are likely to resent the bomb-diffusing robot who stole that task from them?
When it comes to RPA, the tasks that are typically delegated to the machines are things like data entry, routine customer service interactions, and basic IT troubleshooting. These are tasks that human workers often dread. One of the best-selling points for RPA is that it can relieve workers from ever having to perform those dreaded tasks again.
More Meaningful Work
If workers can ditch their monotonous, menial work, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re no longer needed. Often it means they can be assigned more meaningful, rewarding, and engaging tasks – those for which RPA isn’t designed. Instead of fielding customer calls, for example, an employee may be able to focus on restructuring the customer service process, leaving the grunt work to the computers.
Worker-Friendly Labor Market
As noted above, the current labor market conditions won’t last forever; but at present, employees have tremendous leverage and opportunities. This means that employees who may lose out to RPA can likely find alternative employment. More importantly, it means that employers will want to keep them around even if their current tasks can be performed by RPA, as there’s likely still plenty of work for them to tackle. In other words, RPA isn’t necessarily taking jobs from humans; it’s filling the staffing gaps that exist because no human workers are willing to do the job at the prevailing wage.
It's natural for workers to give a sideways glance at the introduction of non-human labor in their workplace. The common wisdom is that more non-human workers mean fewer human workers. But RPA isn't a zero-sum game. Supplementing a company's labor force with technology and automation may displace some workers; but on balance, it allows employees to perform safer, more meaningful, and more engaging work while the computers do the boring stuff. The challenge for employers is to effectively and credibly convey that message to staff.
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