7 steps for bringing automation into the workplace

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Psychology and wellbeing is a big issue – it’s in the news, in homes and in the workplace. Millions struggle with anxiety about an uncertain economic future, amplified by the emotional burdens of the Covid-19 pandemic. Google searches for worry, anxiety and therapeutic techniques have increased during the pandemic. And advancing automation and a faster pace of work life are contributing to this growing trend.

For many, work is now dominated by what is happening on and behind their digital screens, which is a relatively new environment. For millennia, our psychology was formed from experience with the physical world and human interaction.

But today, these experiences are declining. Instead of human interaction stimulating our senses, our interaction is with digital ‘peers’ that get a bit smarter each day. We need to design and deploy automations that do not degrade employee psychology as humans and machines work together in increasingly sophisticated ways.

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Forrester conducted a study in early 2021 to help understand the impact of automation on employee psychology. We asked employees how they feel about both mainstream automations, such as document sharing that they have used for ten years or more, and emerging automations such as chatbots or machine learning-based decision management, used for less than three years.

We compared the answers and from them, found that enterprises can actively counter the negative effects of advancing automation by respecting the employee psychology in seven distinct ways.

Give employees control

Workers have been the recipients or consumers of automation’s value, but they must now become contributors. The “ability to programme the automation myself” was a top respondent choice, resulting in reduced anxiety and increased positivity through employees feeling more in control.

When people buy into the automation, they become less fearful and, at the same time, have opportunity to advance their career skills to protect their jobs.

This seems simple, but today employees struggle with complex interfaces of automation apps and are mystified by the inner workings of NLP and machine learning. We need to design automations that employees can understand, enhance and personalise.

Recognise emerging automations provide a sense of power

The most popular response for how emerging automation makes an employee feel is that it gives them a sense of power. This power comes from the belief that they can automate further and innovate.

The top choice for mainstream automation was more tactical: “The automation simplifies my schedule.” This is a positive finding. It means that emerging automation can put a superman cape on an employee, helping them present themselves as smarter, more capable and more productive – in a sense, more powerful.

Think twice before giving all common tasks to robots

The average worker spends 60pc of their time with tedious paperwork, e-mail and administrative tasks – time and tasks better allocated to automation. Robots eliminate many boring tasks, but also take out much needed breaks, autonomy and tasks that make jobs less intense and stressful.

Leaving humans with only challenging activities will increase stress because time throughout the working day to momentarily rest, disengage and think creatively are reduced.

Give a clear and transparent adoption plan

The benefits of AI will not be intuitive to all members of the workforce. Words like advancement, empowerment, innovation and revolution will resonate with some but will frighten others.

How the technology will augment the human workforce, enhance employees’ daily lives and handle routine tasks should be highlighted with concrete examples.

Leaders must explain why the change is being made instead of emphasising the features of the technology.

Automation deficits like job losses should not be concealed but honestly portrayed, along with plans for employee upskilling and updated job descriptions.

Don’t let monitoring be the boss

Monitoring is sensitive but potentially rewarding for the business and the employee. Email data, text messages and Slack chats can help to understand collaboration patterns and what a human is doing. In turn, it can help a company perform better.

But the more a human is monitored, the more anxious they become. AI is being used to monitor factory workers’ productivity and even software developers can now have their lines of code monitored.

We found data gathered on the employee is more accepted if the employee feels it can help improve work performance. The employee’s ability to monitor the automation is also important. In other words, make the monitoring a two-way street and respect the natural privacy barriers.

Have the automation adapt to them

Some employees are more comfortable on the phone, others prefer chat, some like to bury themselves in spreadsheets while others just want the answer.

Overwhelmingly, our survey found the ability for an automation to adapt to an employee is a top desired feature. In fact, this was a top-three employee requirement for both emerging and mainstream automations.

Employees want to configure an automation to their work habits, preferring a specialised user interface (UI) for training the automation.

This will require new low-code and user-led approaches that allow a worker to configure a digital assistant to meet their needs without requiring a computer science background.

Educate staff on emerging automation

Our research clearly shows that ongoing education on automation is key to making employees more comfortable. Confidence grows when employees know how to use it and experience its added value.

For example, if a company offers management training on a new AI-powered system but neglects to teach rank-and-file employees how to use it, employees will become confused, angry and feel negative.

The goal of protecting human experience might seem in conflict with automation’s focus on efficiency, and sometimes it will be.

Yet, following this guidance will bring humans and machines together in innovative and rewarding ways. The big automation win is where machines enhance the employee experience, with great respect for their psychology.

By Craig Le Clair

Craig Le Clair is a vice-president and principal analyst at Forrester.

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