The headlines tell a confusing story about the impact of automation and artificial intelligence on jobs. Pew Research Center asked 1,896 experts to comment on the impact of automation and AI on the future of jobs. Roughly half of these experts, 48%, envisioned a future where robots and digital agents will displace significant numbers of both blue and white-collar workers. The other 52% of experts expect technology to create more jobs than it displaces by 2025. This is consistent with the estimate from Gartner that says by 2020 AI will create 2.3 million jobs in 2020 while eliminating 1.8 million jobs.
One area on which these experts agree is that automation will transform all jobs. In fact, McKinsey predicts roughly 30 percent of the activities in 60 percent of all occupations could be automated. This means that most workers, from those working in a factory or warehouse, to customer call center operators, recruiting schedulers and even CEOs, will be working alongside digital assistants. The nature of all jobs is changing as organizations leverage the power of artificial intelligence and machine learning in the workplace.
But I think the conversation has the wrong focus. We know AI and automation will transform the nature of the activities within jobs, but, as leaders, we need to ask a new question: what happens when either full-time workers or gig workers self-automate their jobs? Actually, this question was asked by a programmer on The Workplace Stack Exchange, one of the web’s most important forums for programmers with the post: “Is it unethical for me to not tell my employer I’ve automated my job?”
This question was viewed over 480,000 times and asks us to address an emerging issue in the workplace: If workers self-automate their jobs, who benefits and what is the impact on other jobs? While the threat of automation is playing itself out in the media, some workers have taken matters into their own hands and started to automate various aspects of their jobs, from data entry to inventory management and database administration.
While self-automating jobs are gaining steam among programmers, workers across other business functions are automating various aspects of their jobs. They are experimenting with using Google Assistant to manage busywork and accessing a range of productivity bots to schedule meetings or to follow-up after meetings. All of this is having broad implications for both the employee and the employer. HR, Business and IT leaders need to ask themselves five questions as the wave of self-automation spreads beyond programmers to a myriad of job functions and industries:
1. What will be the impact of AI and automation at work?
Automation and the impact of AI on the workplace is happening now and it is not going away. In fact, McKinsey estimates that 15% of the global workforce or 400 million workers could be displaced by automation in the period 2016–2030. There are many factors that will impact the pace and scope of workforce automation, such as labor market dynamics and associated wages for certain jobs, as well as the technical feasibility of automation and the acceptance of automation by a company’s culture. But one thing is certain: As machines complement human labor in the workplace, we will all be impacted and need to adjust the nature of our jobs. There are numerous blog posts and how-to articles with titles like “How I Automated My Job With Node JS,” or even books, a recent one titled, Automate the Boring Stuff with Python, showing this to be a growing cottage industry.
2. What happens when key job families begin to self-automate their jobs?
Programmers are a job family ripe for self-automation since they routinely use tools to automate various aspects of their job. These workers offer a glimpse of what it looks like when automation is started not by a top-down executive strategy but by the workers themselves. For HR, business and IT leaders, the opportunity is to inculcate a learning mindset among workers so when (not if) self automation occurs, workers will be encouraged to learn new skills and tackle new challenges.
3. Who should benefit when workers develop a “hack” into how their job gets done?
It seems to me both the employer and the employee should benefit from workers who find better ways to do their jobs. While many knowledge workers routinely sign employment contracts stipulating that any intellectual property developed on company time belongs to the employer, should this continue to be the norm as jobs are being automated by technology? If a worker creates an efficiency “hack,” why not reward this, communicate it company-wide, and identify ways the worker can use their new found time at work to develop additional skills?
4. How can job automation become less a top-down mandate and more a bottom-up movement?
Currently, the focus has been on when employers will pull the switch and automate jobs, but this does not consider the spread of self-automation across various job functions, starting with programmers, but expanding to customer service center operators, recruiting coordinators and more. In fact, we must ask ourselves this: Will self-automation become a new skill set for workers? How can we encourage workers to look for ways to automate parts of their jobs, and in the process, reclaim parts of their work day? We might even envision a time when self-automating your job allows you to have a four-day work week. Workers already believe they can get their work done in less time. According to research conducted by Future Workplace and Kronos, three-in-four full-time employees (78%) say they could do their job in under seven hours each day if they could work uninterrupted, while almost half (45%) think they could wrap things up in just five hours each day.
5. How do business leaders start a dialogue about self automating jobs?
“Here’s what we don’t want to happen,” says Ryan Duguid, Chief Evangelist, Nintex. “We don’t want workers who self-automate to keep this to themselves. We want to reward their agility and curiosity.” Often, companies focus only on finding organizational productivity gains, but the time is now to recognize workers who discover personal productivity gains. HR, business and IT leaders need to start discussing how some workers have self-automated parts of their jobs, increased their productivity and satisfaction at work, as well as developed new skills adding more value to their jobs. It’s time we turn the conversation from employers using automation to displace jobs to workers using technology to find better ways to do their jobs!
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