What Employees Tell Us About Automation and Re-skilling
There is an ever greater focus on the impact of automation on work and what it will mean for jobs. Certain kinds of routine work are on the front lines, including the analytical activities of administrative assistants and bank cashiers, and the manual jobs of warehouse assistants, assembly line workers, and delivery drivers. Many tasks within these jobs are likely to be automated: For instance, delivery workers now scan packages and generate automated driving statistics.
The agenda for routine, lower-skilled work in this new world includes upskilling (giving employees access to new and often higher-value tasks within the same job) or re-skilling (making them able to accomplish a completely new set of tasks). Neither of these undertakings is straightforward, however. Bringing new skills to the workplace inevitably brings a range of stakeholders into the picture, including the companies doing the re-skilling, the government and education systems that help out, and the employees themselves.
We’ve heard from managerial populations about how they’re navigating this agenda. In a survey of CEOs, for example, two-thirds (67%) said they have a responsibility to retrain employees whose tasks and jobs are at risk of being automated out of existence.
What has not been adequately heard in this conversation are the voices of employees themselves. How are people who perform low- to medium-paying jobs thinking about upskilling and re-skilling? What do they see as the opportunities and challenges?
These were our starting questions in a series of focus groups and roundtable conversations held with people whose jobs are most susceptible to automation. My research company, Hot Spots Movement, collaborated with BritainThinks, a strategy consultancy, and Capita, a consulting, digital services, and software business, to speak with people across the U.K., including those who work for Capita. Our research was published in a November 2019 report.
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The conversations were fascinating. They gave us deeper insight into the working lives of those on the front line of automation, while also highlighting key areas in which future action is needed. We heard four key themes: excitement about the upsides, the need for preparation to reduce anxiety, the importance of getting change right the first time, and the impact of personal coaching.
Employees Are Excited About the Possibilities
During the course of our conversations, many people told us they could see or imagine the positive impact of automation on their jobs and the tasks they performed. They described how automation had the potential to remove some of the most boring and repetitive aspects of their roles.
“The automation of scheduling has made my job more efficient and a lot quicker,” is how one delivery driver described it. “It has smoothed out the little frustrations and helps me meet my performance targets.”
Automation has already meant fewer manual tasks and more intellectually challenging tasks for some. It also has meant more exciting work and the possibility of securing new and different jobs.
Employees Need Preparation to Stave Off Anxiety
As we spoke to people, we learned that one of the details that really affected their experiences was how much opportunity they had to prepare, both for a single automation event and for the longer-term trajectory of automation.
Employees felt that changes worked well when they had some control over making their own plans for managing their future options. For example, one person said, “We heard about it relatively early, and the staff welcomed it with open arms — it was something we really needed.”
Without advance preparation and prior insight, however, employees were left to worry and speculate about potential changes. As one person said, “We’ve introduced bar coding into the store, so we need one [clerk] instead of four. That’s good; it saves money. But what happens to the other three people?”
It’s Critical to Help People Succeed Right Away
For many employees, following the path of automation means they must let go of some component of their jobs to robots or AI while developing new skills to perform new tasks. Some of these new skills are simply a slight expansion of current skills. Others require new ways of operating.
Getting these new approaches right can be tricky. When everything clicks, people really feel excited. As one person remarked, “It’s satisfying when it works — there is nothing better than pressing ‘go’ and it works how you want.” Getting new changes right boosted people’s confidence.
For those who did not have sufficient on-the-job support, the chances of getting it wrong were high. People described how changes that didn’t go smoothly sapped their enthusiasm and confidence. “When things went wrong, managers were quite hard to get ahold of,” said one discussion participant. Technology that didn’t operate as planned or was poorly implemented “brought a lot of rework” and undermined people’s trust in the new systems.
E-learning Doesn’t Replace Personal Interaction
Training budgets are tight in most companies, and nowhere is this more evident than in low-paid work, where it can be hard to make a case for training. It’s no surprise, therefore, that efforts to re-skill the most routine jobs often focus on low-cost e-learning.
That’s fine — to a point. In our discussions, employees said they were comfortable with e-learning, describing how they already learn at home from video platforms like YouTube. (There are, for example, enormously popular online cooking channels that teach new skills.) Many embrace video tutorials, and we heard examples of people being self-taught and proud of it. But there was a general feeling that without the support of peers and managers, e-learning was just not enough.
To capitalize on employees’ initial excitement about the potential of automation, company leaders need to take four actions before they make 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.
Lay out plans in advance. Anxiety significantly impacts the possibility of change and learning. Leaders can reduce this by clearly describing what the implication of automation will be and creating a pathway that describes how employees will be upskilled in their current jobs or re-skilled into new jobs.
Provide no-pressure run-throughs. Leaders must help employees get change right the first time. People we spoke with talked about the importance of getting clear walk-through demonstrations and the opportunity to try out new technologies and responsibilities in a safe space.
Arrange ongoing face-to-face training. Leaders need to be sure to supplement e-learning with peer support groups and coaching.