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The workforce of the future: robots and roadmaps

  • BSA staff. Photo credit: Stephen Chin
  • 14 Jul 2016
Landscape robot

Transformation is the business buzzword of this generation. Preface it with digital, leadership, cultural or service and you’ll find a slew of articles, comment pieces and case studies on how it’s been done and why everyone should try it. In reality, it boils down to change. We live, as they say, in “interesting times” and one of the striking features of this age is the pace of development.

Technology now underpins our social, economic and business transactions in a way never previously conceived of and it will continue to rapidly evolve and transform our world. For businesses this often means simply keeping up: realising benefits where possible and ensuring their competitive edge isn’t lost to a more agile and savvy competitor. But what does it mean for the future of the workforce? Is technology a threat or an opportunity? How can businesses, particularly those that are built on their people, map out next steps?

Much vaunted is the threat of automation, with artificial intelligence and machine learning expanding the scope of computing power to successfully tackle more tasks than ever before. A report by Deloitte, based on data on the business services sector from our Oxford Economics report, found that between 25 and 31 per cent of jobs in the sector are considered at “high risk” of automation. The characteristics denoting risk are typically classified as repetitiveness, regularity, and relative simplicity: factors that make tasks ripe for automation.

At a BSA roundtable in July with senior stakeholders from member companies, the mood reflected both the excitement for the opportunities technology would bring, and concern about what it would mean for employees. Already, they said, the ripples are spreading. The AI operator “Amelia” can resolve over 60 per cent of call centres enquiries accurately - and continues to learn and improve performance while doing so. Mobile robot hazard cones can blow air to dry spillages on floors as they wheel around. Smart sensors in lifts are connected to the Cloud and not only alert maintenance when they break, but also log and model data to predict and help avert faults.

Importantly however, all of these new technologies work alongside humans: an operator is still needed to respond to the questions Amelia can’t handle; a cleaning operative must set up the floor-drying cone and check its progress; and a lift engineer must address the faults that the sensors predicts or reports. There are opportunities then for technology to not merely usurp work, but to transform ways of working, for repetitive and routine tasks to be handled by robots and computers and for the workforce to evolve into skilled operators, technology managers or trained specialists.

This change will not happen overnight and for those in the high risk jobs, it is important to recognise that it may well be a long and difficult process. As younger generations expect to work for more of their lives, employers will need to learn how to retain, adapt and empower their employees to journey with them and with their transformations.

But this is far from impossible: technology already pervades day-to-day life, making automation accessible and illustrating that workforce shifts can also be positive. With smartphones becoming near ubiquitous, apps can streamline communications or provide easy access to data or sensors. As machines tackle more complex tasks, workers will be able to focus on operating and working alongside them, as opposed to carrying out the tasks they perform. New jobs, such as that of data architect or social media manager, will be created and provide employment. And crucially, economists argue that if services and goods become more efficient and cheaper as a result, productivity gains and higher disposable incomes will create further growth in the economy and in the job market.

For the business services sector, where staff have formed the backbone of businesses since its inception, this transition will require investment, engagement and a visionary roadmap. Skills and training will be vital: both to enable the technology that will bring change, and to ensure that the workforce is able to benefit simultaneously. Large companies must also learn to be agile: finding ways to incorporate new innovations and make new technology business as usual. Finally, leaders must work with their people to engage with and embrace new developments. Strategies will need to be both flexible and inclusive because no one, not even Amelia, can tell us exactly what comes next.

Read the briefing note from the Automation and the Workforce Roundtable here.


  Related topics: Human resources and skills, Economy and growth