AI and automation have led to fundamental restructuring of the labor market in recent years. Areas like accounting, finance, HR, customer support and others have a high level of repetitive tasks. These areas and others are ripe for RPA benefits, but they also pose job loss concerns for countless workers specializing in these areas.
A McKinsey Global Institute study estimates 77M jobs will be lost to AI/automation with 3-14 percent of the global workforce needing to switch jobs by 2030 rivaling the agricultural labor shift of the 1900s. The question then becomes, is this RPA transition a shift of human labor and intelligence? Or is it a displacement of the types of skills needed around:
- Tasks and processes
- Specific sectors
- Desired benefits from RPA
- Pace of RPA adoption
The value of an occupation that could be replaced by RPA is a complex subject where RPA-driven job losses, job gains, and job support are highly dependent on the sector, the job itself, and the business implementing it.
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Untangling the Knot of Job Loss, Job Gains, and RPA
What we know is that most humans want to do work that enables them to think, which is the opposite of what repetitive tasks offer. Automation, AI, and RPA bots must be taught to handle repetitive tasks, which means while bots can do the task, humans must determine and teach them what to do.
The result is many of the tasks where RPA excels and is most effective for the business are being directed by or working alongside of humans, which shows:
- The skilled human workforce best understands the processes and how they and RPA should fit into a larger business mission
- Only humans can bring the skills, emotional understanding, service communication, and reasoning to make the higher order decisions. This is a more complicated process that cannot be farmed out to a bot.
Black swan events like COVID-19 complicate RPA implementation decisions and broaden opportunities for the business and the workforce. As the economic fallout from COVID-19 took its toll, many businesses shed around 40 million jobs due to lower demand across countless sectors.
For some, the COVID-19 economic fallout sped up the need for cost-saving measures like RPA that could pick up the slack of lost employees while lowering costs across the board, to meet tighter margins and lower sales. Others have been concerned about implementations of RPA at a time of business upheaval and financial uncertainty.
With most looking at a remote workforce as a permanent fixture to varying degrees, RPA can be a major plus for the business bottom line in terms of productivity. It is also a boon to the workforce that can make use of bots to complete mundane tasks so they can concentrate on those that are more crucial.
The Real Challenge of Workforce Productivity, Engagement, and Fulfillment
Rework in boring and repetitive but essential tasks has long been a problem for businesses, that has led to a two-pronged scourge. The first is increased costs to get the work product right by humans that made simple mistakes from a lack of constant engagement with the process.
The other prong was many of the employees doing mundane and mind-numbing repetitive tasks only lasted for a year or two before quitting and looking for something better. In fact, average avoidable rework in accounting departments takes up 30 percent of a full-time employee’s overall time according to Gartner. This has a big impact on business growth, productivity, services, and the bottom line.
But for RPA to benefit the business and the workforce, while also dispelling fears of job loss, these initiatives must start with human-focused learning and inclusion in the process. Discovery cannot even begin without the skills, experience, and broader understanding of the processes by the workforce performing it every day.
This understanding serves as the foundation of teaching the RPA bot and providing ongoing human guidance. It is only the skilled human that can identify the broader process possibilities and higher-level associated tasks that can increase productivity and accuracy through RPA bots.
Now more than ever during the COVID-19 pandemic, businesses must speed up automation investments for system and process resiliency, elimination of bottlenecks and freeing their valuable human resource for more important and engaging work. This is true when they work remotely and if they return to the office.
Making the Most of RPA in the Real World
RPA is most often associated with being suited best for automating work that’s measurable, repeatable, predictable and transactional. But it can grow into cognitive automation, which brings intelligence to robotic processes that increase the scope of what it can do for the business.
A recent AICPA article shows how accounting practices within standalone businesses and within corporate structures will be transformed by RPA in ways benefiting skilled and knowledgeable employees rather than threatening their jobs. This reality rings true across many critical sectors, fields, and departments. In each of them, RPA is growing fast to eliminate redundant work but will continue to rely on skilled human intervention and process control.
The Deloitte Global RPA Survey says 53 percent of organizations have already begun incorporating bots and that number will climb to 72 percent. This spans all sectors with emphasis on the following industries and functions:
- Customer service
- Call center support
- Sales order processing
- Data analytics
- Document and data management
Additional surveys and studies from Deloitte and other highly regarded business research organizations show these implementations are not decreasing employment and in some cases are increasing employment. The challenge is to replicate these outcomes through RPA implementation across the vast majority of businesses and sectors.
To do this, businesses and their workforce must start with the understanding that jobs may not be eliminated, but they will be changing. That means workers and businesses must do their part to prepare for this fundamental change in the way they think about and define tasks, processes, and job descriptions.
How People and Businesses Can Prepare for Change and Opportunity with RPA
Change in business culture and jobs are never easy, which has led to the fear RPA will mean massive job elimination rather than massive change. The feared loss of a job because of automation is a scary thought. it’s also scary to think the job will change, so businesses and employees will have to ask themselves two questions:
- How will RPA change jobs and business processes?
- How do I prepare to meet that change and take advantage of what it offers?
To answer that question, we have to start with two aspects foundational to how businesses see processes and jobs in the pre-RPA/automation paradigm. Existing technology and systems, existing in separate silos, have always relied on humans to complete complex processes, but the technology has stopped short of handling the repetitive tasks in any holistic way.
We have burdened humans with the manual processes making up many of the tasks in a complex process. The classic job description has been defined by understanding how to interface with the technology and perform the manual tasks. RPA not only brings the capability of interfacing with those legacy technologies, but bridging the gap between system silos to retrieve, extract, and manipulate data to further process completion.
But the people that know the task best must teach the process to the RPA bot so it can fulfill its part of the process. Once done, the human with the knowledge, experience, and ability to problem solve, something that bots cannot do, is now free to create human-centric processes and provide more value to the company while developing a more fulfilling and secure role for themselves.
Why Your Job is Not Only Safe but Can Be Better with RPA
This evolution is built on humans marshalling a new combination of skills and capabilities in a reimagined job that uses their hard skills, but is more reliant on soft skills such as:
- Being interpretive and service-oriented
- Data interpretation
- Communications and listening
- Customer service and empathy
- Teamwork and collaboration
This new hybrid job moves beyond the rigid job descriptions and tasks the job is based on today. The human doing the job today is in the ideal position to design and fulfill the new hybrid job alongside RPA. These jobs make bots a “co-bot,” which is simply saying the bot collaborates with the human to complete the new and broader tasks in their new hybrid role.
The hybrid role is less fixed and more adaptive to new opportunities that come from being freed from doing the repetitive tasks now assigned to the RPA bot. The goal is the skilled worker maximizes their human potential and takes part in the company redefining the process and the new role. Because these skilled human experts understand not only the processes as they exist but also as they should be, they can:
- Help define the best place for RPA
- Be involved in the bot training
- Fulfill the new role of the expanded opportunity
To do this they must combine the above list of soft skills with the hard skills originating from their expertise. The result for the human and the company is greater productivity, employee fulfillment, company and personal growth alongside increased innovation, adaptability and agility. That’s why a Forbes survey found 92 percent of employees were more satisfied as a result of RPA initiatives at their organizations.
Achieving a Brighter Business and Workforce Future with RPA
Job loss is a fact of the current market due to the economic fallout from the pandemic and countless other factors. This is happening alongside the opportunities from wholesale digital transformation across the business landscape. As a result, what we see now in the US with RPA implementation as it grows is not so much job loss, as a job restructuring and reimagining. RPA and automation stand as an opportunity for every worker looking to the new future of work through preparation and education.
Many companies will have to lead the way in this reimagining and training as they plan and execute RPA implementations. Many companies will need the support of a development and implementation solution provider that can partner with the company and its workforce to guide the process.
That includes everything from process discovery and development of a Center of Excellence to the change management support crucial to successful implementation -—defined by this new model of a more fulfilling, adaptive, and productive business and workforce. By understanding and embracing the boundless opportunities, businesses and the workforce can plot their own path to success as part of the automation generation.
Stephen has over 20 years of experience in building and scaling technology-based firms. Steve leads the RPA practice at Solugenix where the team has implemented over 100 bots using RPA tools like UiPath, Blue Prism, Automation Anywhere, and Pega OpenSpan in industries spanning from MedTech and insurance to commercial real estate and investment firms.