Workplace Automation as a Solution To a Worker Shortage
This just in: there is no such thing as a Boredom Bonus. Human beings get bored easily when doing monotonous, repetitive tasks – it’s in our nature to seek creativity, difference, and excitement. When humans are bored, mistakes are made, and rarely caught or rectified. That means employing people to do boring, menial jobs and paying them extra to do them correctly and enthusiastically is not only uneconomical, it simply doesn’t work. That in turn means it’s increasingly difficult to find people who are willing to do those jobs for the money they’re actually worth. That worker shortage has led to a significant push towards workplace automation.
Let’s back up a moment. Workplace automation tends to lead people to think of huge factories full of elegant robots putting enormous machines together, or filling an endless conveyor belt of doughnuts with exactly the right amount of filling without ever being touched by human hand.
And yes, those are forms of workplace automation – repetitive work that’s been broken down into mechanical processes and done by machines instead of human beings, freeing the humans to do less repetitive, more rewarding, and crucially more human-centric work elsewhere, rather than being an organic cog in a giant production wheel.
But in the 21st century, the process has stepped across from the factory floor to the boardroom and the office, because wherever human beings go, we somehow manage to find or create boring, repetitive work that clogs up our day and gives us nothing but regrets to look back on. To paraphrase some social media wisdom, no-one looks back on their death bed and thinks “If only I’d sent more emails.”
Modern Workplace Automation
Modern workplace automation works just like the automatic doughnut-filler, but stripping out the tedious elements of any modern workday. If you use Microsoft Office 365, you’ll be familiar with the concept of macros – tiny programs you record that can turn even quite complex but tedious pieces of repetitive work into the stuff of one button-click, so you can replicate the work time and time again, as you need to in a job where the parameters and responsibilities don’t change on a regular basis.
Workplace automation is the equivalent of a macro for whole sections of work – and tech companies are stepping into the breach to provide these automations that free up staff in a whole range of business areas to get on with the more human-centric elements of their job role.
Marketing is a big area for workplace automation, because it frequently involves sending the same information through lots of channels to different interest-groups – emailing opted-in customers with newsletter content, posting similar but non-repetitive stories across at least two or three social media platforms, even (although it’s frowned on in this day and age) sending out paper marketing materials as and when necessary.
The whole business of hosting recipient databases, creating mailing groups, doing ye olde-fashioned mail merges, and laboriously adding stories one at a time to different social media platforms is a modern version of Intensive, repetitive grunt-work that just clogs up a marketing day.
There’s an app for that.
Or at least, there are plenty of tech companies with software that can take the grunt-work out of your marketing, freeing marketers up to try and be witty, devious and clever – things that, at least so far, only humans, and only humans with a particular marketing skillset, can bring to the business.
Customer service is another area where workplace automation is already in place. While plenty of people prefer to have a conversation with a real person, chatbots have been a reality for years as a kind of first line of information provision, and workplace automation is also in place whenever you ring up a company and they put you through an automated system to gather your specific details before you get to speak to a human, who then (at least in theory) has had all those account details automatically passed to them so they don’t spend time getting them from you directly, perhaps mishearing or mistyping them in the process. It’s a streamlining of the process, so that, if you can avoid the general rage at being interrogated by a machine, your call will actually go much more swiftly and smoothly once you get to a live operator.
And we’re also evolving away from traditional, limited chatbot models. For organizations with a big enough communication burden – largely event, venue or sporting organizations who have to deal with regular and massive ticketing or venue inquiries – AI assistants are now taking over from standard chatbots. Though they’re still managed by human operators, who can oversee conversations and join in as and when human interaction is necessary, AI assistants with access to precise knowledge banks about venues (or any other siloed information-set) can now handle around 95% of customer queries, due to a much enhanced granularity of information and new conversational AI models.
Sales is an area almost entirely predicated on the human-to-human relationships between salespeople and clients, but, like marketing, it exists on top of several bedrock layers of what used to be called paperwork. Invoicing, order processing, lead chasing, shipment tracking, and several other elements can now all be relatively simply automated, leaving salespeople to get on with the business of building relationships, crafting the right product package and the right narrative to help both clients and their companies. In fact, it’s estimated that almost a third of sales tasks can by automated in a modern office. That would free up salespeople to spend a third more of their time doing what they do best – selling.
Recruitment has been using workplace automation for some time, with AI algorithms doing initial candidate-sifting, so recruitment managers only take over the process once those who don’t match the required criteria have been weeded out of the application pile.
Does AI Practice Electric Bigotry?
There’s a note of caution to sound on using AI for this process, though. Companies including Amazon have discovered that AIs that have been taught using ‘industry-standard’ data and criteria have a tendency to disregard otherwise perfectly suitable candidates on the grounds that they don’t match people who have previously been appointed – rather than strictly on the job role requirements. That led Amazon’s AI to discriminate against women and de-select them before they could be seen by human eyes. AIs have been the study of the University of Boston, and now the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office is investigating allegations that recruitment AIs also discriminate against black people and the neurodivergent.
So maybe workplace automation is not yet the panacea it could be – especially when judgment calls have to be made. But for a great number of modern office disciplines, there are ways in which workplace automation can make an impressive difference.
The Employment Fallacy
There is of course an argument that by replacing the mundane and menial jobs with automation, companies are effectively eradicating the lowest rung on the ladder, the entry point for those who have no experience, but are keen to learn. There may be specific cases where this is initially true, but the system will ultimately self-adjust, and junior staff, when they join a department, will not be stuck learning nothing but the menial jobs of that department. By rights, the adjusted system should see them join a department and immediately get stuck into some levels of the actual human-centric work of the department, getting more valid and valuable experience from day 1.
Workplace automation does not exist to eliminate roles or opportunities. It exists to eliminate tedium, wasted time, and focus-pulling administration, so that businesses can function more smoothly, and people can get on with the parts of the job that get them up in the morning.
6 December 2023
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