Thought leadership: What does robotics mean for employees?

By Mary-Lyn Raath.

Read time 6min 10sec

By 2020, the World Economic Forum suggests that robots will replace 5 million workers, and McKinsey Global Institute predicts that by 2025 as many as between 40 and 75 million jobs worldwide will be affected by the introduction of robots.

As we move through this age of digital transformation, how can businesses prepare and what does the acceleration of technology mean for employees?

The manufacturing sector was one of the first industries to embrace robotics. Having used robots to support production for some years, it was a logical step.

However robotics is evolving. We are far beyond robotic arms spray painting cars on an assembly line. Already Amazon employs over 45 000 robots in 20 of its vast fulfilment centres which is testament to where we are headed.

While many still use robotics as a 'catch all' phrase, today, robotics can be used across every industry for services, process automation, artificial intelligence and cognitive computing. Most recently, robotics services have become familiar with the popularisation of chatbots in online shopping and banking platforms.

While robotics presents some exciting opportunities, in a country like South Africa with a high unemployment rate, robotics may seem like a counter-intuitive move. Many continue to debate South Africa's economic need for technological advancement over and above job creation, but the debate should rather be, 'how do we apply robotics responsibly?'

Robotics is predicted to have several positive effects for any country's economy, not only from a productivity perspective but also job engagement and skills development.

According to a report issued by the McKinsey Global Institute last year, automation could raise productivity growth globally by 0.8 to 1.4% annually. Further to that, a 2015 Deloitte report, Redesigning work in an era of cognitive technologies, shows that robotics and automation can reduce mundane tasks and present companies with a choice; to create value or cut costs.

As mundane tasks are taken over by robots: whether it be services, automation, AI or cognitive computing, the role of the employee will necessarily change. Reducing tasks like data entry, basic IT support functions and stock management, will mean employees can be relieved to undertake 'uniquely human' tasks and add more value to their organisation.

Uniquely human traits include empathy, proactive kindness, judgement, creativity, art, higher consciousness, using language to convey complex ideas and complex interconnected thinking, to mention a few. Many of these will always be necessary in the workplace.

For instance, by 2030 there will be 34 'super-aged' countries where one person in five is over 65. As such, empathy and proactive kindness will continue to be an important uniquely human skill in the healthcare industry and specifically, care workers.

Similarly, judgement will continue to be required in sectors such as banking. When applicants require a bank loan, they may not be eligible for the entire loan amount, but a human can apply judgement to determine what kind of loan that customer may be eligible for based on lot of other client factors available for review, instead of relying on a rules based engine alone.

A third example is creativity and art. Authors, composers, designers and artists, are far superior to machines due to their uniquely human traits.

Recently, Elon Musk admitted that Tesla relied on too many robots and not enough human employees to build the Model 3, which serves to support the notion that robotics will assist, however they will not be the answer to all of our problems in the working environment.

So, while each company will more than likely have an optimum ratio of robots to humans, the introduction of robots onto our shop floors and office spaces is going to have a tremendous impact on the people around us. Organisations have a responsibility to address these and help human employees adapt to new environments, particularly in South Africa where we have a significant job creation challenge.

The jobs of the future will change and organisations need to be training their staff towards developing uniquely human skills so that they can remain competitive.

There is no doubt that robotics will affect our business world on three levels; the organisation, the team and the individual. From an organisational perspective we will see improved productivity, accuracy and reduced risk. Tasks that had previously been reactive will become proactive and with that, preventative. This will reduce costs associated with risk and also damage mitigation.

From a team perspective, we can expect to see new learnings around how to manage a team mix of bots and humans. Equally, instead of cutting costs and reducing employees, companies can choose to add value to their business by placing humans in different, more challenging roles.

On an individual level, there will be some exciting skills development opportunities as employees prepare themselves for the skills of the future. As a consequence, creating more engaged employees with greater sense of purpose and team morale. The increased productivity from this alone will start to become apparent for companies.

Robotics is going to make a huge difference to the skills of the future. But there is another dynamic too: The 100-year life.

Our children will live for longer and with that, the amount of time they work, and the work they do will change. Already, we're seeing people taking sabbaticals during their 40s which is in huge contrast to the previous generation where people worked just one or two jobs until their retirement age. Companies need to plan for the paradigm shift the 100-year life is going to make, and start asking how robotics can help support and sustain this new approach to working life.

Imagine the positive impact robotics can have on all industries in South Africa, today and into the future. Not just within mining, banking, manufacturing and consumer retail, but also, healthcare, education and public services.

Organisations need to adapt. The skills of the future are going to change and companies have a responsibility to start training and educating their workforce now so that all three levels: organisational, team and the individual, can remain relevant and add real value to their organisation.

About the author

Mary-Lyn Raath has a successful 23-year track record delivering business consulting solutions through collaboration with, and integration of, multi-disciplinary teams. Since 2011, she has led consulting teams in EOH ICT and continues play an active role in an advisory capacity on client projects.

Her expertise lies in strategy and operating model design, business solution design, and project delivery of new technologies to support digital innovation across multiple industries.

This topic will be explored further at the EOH Connect event, which will be taking place at The Sandton Convention centre on 9 May 2018.

Editorial contacts
EOHSamantha van Nispen(+27) 11 479 8932samantha.vannispen@eoh.com
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