Automation: The future of the workplace

​​​​​​​​​Automation in the workplace refers to the substitution of repetitive tasks traditionally performed by human employees with technology. The impact of introducing automation may, in turn, mean that employees traditionally performing such repetitive tasks could be retrenched resulting in job losses. Automation permeates every aspect of business processes, such as human resource management and customer service departments, especially as technology becomes more sophisticated. No matter what the outcome, automation will undoubtedly change the workplace and, indeed, the wider economy.

According to a recent study* by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC study), the pace of technological change is on the rise particularly in relation to automation which is replacing human tasks and jobs. The PwC study outlines three types of artificial intelligence that are changing the world of work -​

3 Types of Artificial Intelligence

In fact, we have already started seeing the implementation and impact of automation in South African workplaces. Automation has substituted various tasks (and in some instances, jobs) traditionally performed by human employees including at movie theatres, department stores and fast food outlets. Many small business owners already use at least one common form of automation: email marketing. Some companies offer software that allows users to tailor the parameters of their email marketing campaign to their liking and then set it to run automatically. For example, an introductory email can be uploaded into the software and sent as soon as a contact is added. The software can be configured to send a follow-up email days later only to those who opened the original email, without requiring any action by an employee.  These tools are used to develop relatively sophisticated email marketing campaigns with minimal attention.

A recent example of a significant impact of automation, can be seen in the South African banking sector. Over the last few years, many of the large banks have closed multiple of their branches due to the automation of banking services that can now be performed without customers physically having to visit a branch of the bank. Although obviously highly effective, one of the unfortunate consequences of automation in this industry is that it has led to the retrenchment of thousands of employees.
So how then do we balance the advantages of automation in South Africa and the need for employers to be proactive to prevent job losses.

Upskilling and reskilling of employees

Owing to this new wave of automation and technology sweeping across different industries, there is a need for employers (and in particular, HR professionals at those employers) to start reconsidering the roles and responsibilities of their current workforce and the need to invest time and energy into upskilling and/or reskilling employees.

The PwC study highlights that employers must focus on their people and not necessarily on jobs. Employers cannot prevent jobs becoming redundant due to technology. However, they can protect their people and ensure that they are upskilled and/or reskilled in order to be agile and adaptable to changes in the workplace landscape. The need for employees to have skills in problem-solving, adaptation, collaboration, leadership and creativity is increasingly becoming more important for organisations to instil in their workforce.

The idea of upskilling and reskilling must also be included in the broader education system and curriculum. The simple endeavour of acquiring knowledge and then applying it is not enough. The focus must shift to knowing how to learn and adapt. Within the context of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), this is a lifelong endeavour.

Employers must also ensure that they build a clear strategy on the implementation of technology and automation. The idea is that this strategy must be communicated to all employees in order to prevent such employees from feeling anxious about the impact that new technologies may have on their jobs. It is estimated that about one third of people feel anxious about technology and its potential impact on their jobs. Such anxiety has a debilitating impact on employee morale and initiative. This, in turn, will negatively impact on the performance of organisations.

Business leaders, in particular, play an important role in assisting employees in overcoming their fears around automation anxiety and potential job loss. By adapting their employee training programmes to address the impact of automation on jobs and professional progression, business leaders can help minimise their employees’ fears.

As part of this process, managers also need to be proactive and focus on creating an environment where man and machine can work side-by-side and perform tasks to their full potential in a way that compensates for the other’s weaknesses and complements the other’s strengths.

Retrenchments in South Africa

Section 189 of the Labour Relations Act (LRA) deals with dismissals for operational requirements (more easily known as retrenchments). Section 213 of the LRA goes on to define "operational requirements" as "requirements based on the economic, technological, structural or similar needs of an employer".

Therefore, an employer is justified to engage in retrenchments due to technological advances (eg automation). However, employers must always remember that retrenchments are "no-fault" dismissals and that employees should be dismissed only as a measure of last resort in order to survive legal scrutiny.

In more developed economies, automation could be a positive. Such economies are advanced enough to ensure that human employees can be kept in employment. However, for a developing country like South Africa, automation could have dire consequences for the already-high unemployment rate. It is up to government, together with the private sector, to ensure that proper measures are put in place in order to avoid such consequences.

In his book**, Klaus Schwab (Founder of the World Economic Forum) says the following about technology -

Technology is not an exogenous force over which we have no control. We are not constrained by a binary choice between "accept and live with it" and "reject and live without it". Instead, take dramatic technological control as an invitation to reflect about who we are and how we see the world.

For South Africa, there has already been an acceptance of 4IR in the workplace and within society more generally. If South Africa is to continue to fight for its place in a globally competitive market, such acceptance is critical. However, a cautious and calculated approach to 4IR is also important particularly in the context of the country's already-high unemployment rate.

There is no doubt that technological transformation is already happening in South Africa but it needs to happen in a manner that creates new jobs and conserves (and/or enhances) existing jobs for human employees. The Communications and Digital Technologies Minister, Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, recently commented that South Africa's investment in technology and 4IR should be people centred and focussed, failing which people are at risk of being completely left behind.

The PwC study theorizes that, there will be four different worlds of work in 2030 -

The Yellow World: Humans come first  The Red World: Innovation rules

Technology is not an exogenous force over which we have no control. We are not constrained by a binary choice between "accept and live with it" and "reject and live without it". Instead, take dramatic technological control as an invitation to reflect about who we are and how we see the world.

 

"Organisations and individuals race to give consumers what they want. Innovation outpaces regulation. Digital platforms give outsized reach and influence to those with a winning idea. Specialists and niche profitmakers flourish."

The Green World: Companies care  The Blue World: Corporate is king

"Social responsibility and trust dominate the corporate agenda with concerns about demographic changes, climate and sustainability becoming key drivers of business."

 

"Big company capitalism rules as organisations continue to grow bigger and individual preferences trump beliefs about social responsibility."

At this stage, it is obviously not yet known which category South Africa would fall into. Although it is hoped that South African workplaces are more aligned to the Yellow World and/or the Green World by 2030.

The Future

Whether we like it or not, automation in the workplace has arrived. One area on which experts agree is that automation will transform all jobs. In fact, McKinsey*** predicts roughly 30% of the activities in 60% of all occupations could be automated. This means that most workers, from those working in a factory or warehouse, to customer call centre operators, recruiting schedulers, and even CEOs, will be working alongside digital assistants. The nature of all jobs is changing as organisations leverage the power of artificial intelligence and machine learning in the workplace.

Companies should, instead of fearing automation, look to a more automated future. The future will not be “with AI or without AI” but rather a collaborative hybrid future. Human-AI collaboration is where the workplace is moving and technology currently works best in hybrid structures that augment and allow humans to become experts in complex problem-solving, emotional intelligence and data analysis. Preparing for this hybrid model will require employees who are skilled in both low and high-level issue diagnosis and have thorough knowledge about their business' products. Implementing a strategy for AI adoption is, perhaps surprisingly, not about technology. Management will need to identify the impacted people, tools and processes and create an appropriate plan to address changes.



* Brown J, Gosling T and S Bhushan et al Workforce of the future: The competing forces shaping 203​0​ (2018) PwC, accessed on 4 November 2019.

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** Schwab K The Fourth Industrial Revolution (2017).

 

*** Manyika J, Lund S, Chui M, Bughin J, Woetzel J, Batra P, Ko R and Sanghvi S Jobs lost, jobs gained: What the future of work will mean for jobs, skills, and wages, accessed on 26 November 2019.