What employees say to us about automation and skills restoration

There is more focus than ever on the impact of automation on work and what it will mean for jobs. There are certain types of routine work on the front lines, including analytical activities for administrative assistants and bankers, manual jobs for warehouse assistants, assembly line workers, and delivery drivers. Many tasks are likely to be automated with these tasks: for example, delivery workers now clear packets and generate automatic driving statistics.

The less-skilled routine agenda in this new world includes high skills (giving employees access to new and often highly valuable assignments in the same job) or recreating skills (which makes them able to accomplish an entirely new set of tasks). But none of these pledges is straightforward. Bringing new skills to the workplace will inevitably bring a group of stakeholders in the picture, including companies that bring back skills, government and education systems that help, and employees themselves.

We have heard from administrative groups about how they are browsing this agenda. In a survey of CEOs, for example, two-thirds (67%) said they bear responsibility for retraining employees whose jobs and jobs run the risk of not automating.

What is not heard enough in this conversation are the voices of the employees themselves. How do people performing low to middle-paying jobs think about re-skills? What do they see opportunities and challenges?

These were the questions we had started in a series of focus groups and round table discussions held with people whose jobs were more likely to be automated. My research company, Hot Spots Movement, has partnered with BritainThinks, a strategic consulting firm, and Capita, a consulting firm, digital services, and software business, to speak with people across the UK, including those who work for Capita. Our research was published in the November 2019 report.

The conversations were great. They have given us a deeper insight into the working life of front-line automation, while also highlighting key areas that require future action. We heard four main themes: the excitement about fluctuations, the need to prepare to reduce anxiety, the importance of getting change right the first time, and the effect of personal training.

The staff are excited about the possibilities

During our conversations, many people tell us that they can see or imagine the positive impact of automation on their jobs and the tasks they perform. They describe how automation has the power to remove some of the most boring and repetitive aspects of their roles.

“Automating scheduling has made my job much more efficient and faster,” said one delivery driver. “It relieved a little frustration and helped me achieve my performance goals.”

Automation means fewer manual and more intellectually challenging tasks for some. It also means more exciting work and the possibility of securing new and different jobs.

Staff need to be prepared to avoid anxiety

As we spoke to people, we learned that one of the details that really affected their experiences was the amount of opportunity they had to prepare, whether for a single automation event or for a longer-term automation path.

Employees felt that the changes worked well when they had some control over setting their own plans to manage their future options. For example, someone said, “We heard about it relatively early, and the staff welcomed it with open arms – it’s something we really need.”

However, without prior preparation and prior insight, employees left to worry and speculate about possible changes. As one person said, “We have inserted barcode into the store, so we need [writer] instead of four. That’s good; it saves money. But what happens to the other three people?”

It is imperative to help people succeed immediately

For many employees, following the path of automation means they must give up part of their jobs to robots or artificial intelligence while developing new skills to perform new tasks. Some of these new skills are simply a slight expansion of existing skills. Others require new ways of operating.

Getting to these new methods can be difficult. When everything is clicked, people feel really excited. As someone remarked, “It is satisfactory when it works – nothing is better than pressing” go “and working the way you want.” Correctly getting new changes boosted people’s confidence.

For those who did not get enough support while working, the chances of this error occurring were great. People describe how changes that have not gone smoothly weaken their enthusiasm and confidence. One of the participants in the discussion said: “When things go wrong, it was very difficult for managers to sympathize.” Technology that is not working as planned or poorly implemented has “brought in a lot of work” and undermined people’s confidence in the new systems.

E-learning does not replace personal interaction

Training budgets are tight in most companies, and nothing is more apparent than low-paid work, as it may be difficult to provide a justification for training. Therefore, it is not surprising that efforts to restore more routine skills have focused on low-cost e-learning.

This is pretty good – to some extent. In our discussions, employees said they were comfortable with e-learning, describing how they are already learning at home from video platforms like YouTube. (For example, there are popular online cooking channels teaching new skills.) Many people embrace video lessons, and we’ve heard examples of people learning and taking pride in themselves. But there was a general feeling that without the support of colleagues and managers, e-learning was not enough.

Work in the future

To take advantage of the employees’ initial excitement about automation capabilities, company leaders need to take four actions before making changes:

Build enthusiasm. Leaders need to create projects that show how jobs will change. They need to give employees an opportunity to see the benefits themselves.

Make plans in advance. Anxiety greatly affects the ability to change and learn. Leaders can reduce this by clearly describing the effects of automation and creating a path that describes how employees ’skills in their current jobs will be updated or their skills reinstated in new jobs.

Provides pressure-free operation. Leaders should help employees change correctly the first time. The people we spoke to spoke about the importance of having clear demos and the opportunity to try new technologies and responsibilities in a safe place.

Arrange continuous face to face training. Leaders need to make sure to complete e-learning with peer support groups and training.

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