After years of hype, automation came of age during the pandemic.

By Mikkel Hippe Brun, co-founder and general manager, payment automation at Tradeshift

Businesses across the world realised, often in dramatic fashion, that the resources, human capital and processes they had in place simply weren’t scalable in the face of a crisis.

It’s no great secret that automation is able to perform certain tasks better, faster and cheaper than their human counterparts. Against a background of labor shortages and economic headwinds, businesses in every sector are placing big bets on a ‘digital first’ future with machines taking on ever more responsibility for day-to-day tasks.

When change happens quickly it creates a healthy tension that is in equal parts hype and fear. More often than not it is somewhere in between. Adovocates of automation will often stress the ‘human dividend’ that comes from handing a set of mundane and repetitive tasks over to machines, allowing workers to focus their time and effort on more rewarding, strategic work.

But this hasn’t stopped frontline workers from becoming nervous about what the future holds for them when machines have become adept at an increasing array of tasks. A recent study by KPMG found that employees’ anxiety about automation accelerated during the pandemic, with two-thirds of US employees reporting worry about their job security as their employers made moves to cut costs, optimise processes and improve efficiency through automation.

Familiarity breeds happiness

Finance and accounting regularly feature among the list of roles most suited to automation. According to a study by Mckinsey current in-use technologies can automate 42% of finance activities and mostly automate another 19%.

In an effort to better understand how workers are handling this transition Tradeshift conducted research among frontline accountancy professionals in the US, UK, Germany and France into their hopes, fears and (most importantly) their experiences with automation.

Far from seeing automation as an existential threat, nearly three quarters (71%) said they believe the technology will have a positive  impact on their job satisfaction. But what makes the results particularly compelling is that employees are more likely to value the technology the more they’re exposed to it.

In countries with widespread adoption, workers were not only more optimistic about their job security, but they were also happier in their jobs and more likely to recommend their role to someone about to enter the job market.

In the US, where nearly three quarters (72%) say levels of automation in their department was already very high, the same proportion (75%) said they were happy in their jobs. Cross the Atlantic and you find lower levels of automation, with half of UK workers reporting advanced levels of adoption, falling to 37% in Germany and just 21% in France. These figures map closely with rates of everything from happiness to morale, from perceptions of job security to their likelihood of recommending their job to others. In the UK, 55% of employees claimed to be very happy in their jobs, falling to 44% in France and just 40% in Germany.

Higher reward, lower stress

It’s difficult to escape the conclusion that the oft-expressed fear of automation is misplaced. When we asked workers for their views on the thing they found least satisfying in their job, respondents said it was the dull repetitive tasks that had the most negative impact on their overall happiness. Long hours and a heavy workload also contributed to low levels of happiness and job satisfaction.

One of the most exciting promises of automation is that the machines will finally take charge of repetitive and objectively dull work, like keying in data and fixing minor errors that can create bottlenecks.

Even the most dyed-in-the-wool data entry clerk will tell you there are more valuable things they could be doing with their time. It’s no surprise then that, among the perceived benefits associated with automation, respondents chose eliminating low value, repetitive tasks as the thing most likely to make them happier. A similar proportion said it would help them climb the career ladder faster while preserving a healthier work-life balance.

Would you work for a robot?

It’s obvious why automation brings greater job satisfaction, but surely workers would balk at taking direction from a robot – right?

Surprisingly, many said they’d have no issue taking direction from a machine. Almost half of workers in the US and UK, where automation is most embedded, reported that they’d trust a piece of software to be a more effective line manager than their current boss. And when you dig down, it makes a lot of sense: workers said technology is more effective than humans at spotting and addressing problems, checking work, and decision-making.

Depending on what makes you happy at work this is either an existential threat or something far more empowering.

If data entry is what gets you out of bed in the morning, you’re likely to face an unwinnable battle for relevance against automation. Similarly, if you’re a line manager who lives to double-check other people’s work, automation isn’t your friend. But if you’re ready to become more strategic, more collaborative, and ultimately more visible within the business, technology can be an important ally in your journey.

A lesson from history

Managing change will not always be easy. The best technologies are there to disrupt and challenge the status quo. In an era where many traditional entry-level tasks will become heavily automated, employers will need to re-evaluate their approach to hiring and developing career paths for junior employees. Investment in technology must be matched by investment in skills and training to enable human talent to thrive in alongside machines.  Frontline workers that ignore the need to adapt and learn new skills do so at their peril.

But anyone who thinks that technology is out to replace us could do a lot worse than pick up a history book for a glimpse of the future. Every generation bar none has faced a moment where traditional processes and job roles have been challenged by new tools and technologies. On each occasion, the demise of one set of tasks has created opportunities for more highly skilled, better rewarded jobs.

The robots might be on their way to an office near you, but they’re coming to help you look good.

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