How to Work With (Not Against) Machines to Increase Productivity and Engagement

Emily Crookston

For decades, the media has warned us about robots taking our jobs. But recent developments in robotics, artificial intelligence and machine learning have put us on the cusp of a new automation age. While research by the McKinsey Global Institute shows that less than 5 percent of jobs are candidates for full automation, almost every occupation has partial automation potential (Paging Dr. Hal, “I’m afraid I can’t do that Dave.” Shutter.).

From the perspective of individual job seekers and specific jobs affected, this news can be disheartening. But there is room for optimism if we take a broader perspective. Consider how technology has historically helped American workers. In the 1800s, nearly 80 percent of the U.S. labor market was related to agriculture. Today, that number is about 2 percent, yet we saw incredible growth in the U.S. economy during the same period.

On the management side, there is plenty of reason for optimism too. Automation and smart technologies increase productivity, allowing more work to be accomplished by fewer employees. Goldman Sachs, for example, has begun to automate currency trading and has found that four traders can be seamlessly replaced by one computer engineer.

Still, when it comes to work that has traditionally relied upon skills such as emotional intelligence, problem-solving in varying environments and relationship building, the days of machines taking over seem far in the future. This is all the more reason for companies to strategize now about how to build a culture of support for both humans and machines doing what they each do best.

Test New Labor Models

There is no doubt that the gig economy is driving broader economic and social change. Leading companies recognize the need for new labor models to manage these changes, especially when it comes to helping humans learn to work with machines to increase productivity. New workforce planning approaches that integrate multiple workforce segments, automation and cognitive technologies can enhance productivity as well as product and service quality.

Keeping pace with the changing shape of the 21st century workforce will require deeper levels of collaboration across departments to find solutions to the biggest challenges. It’s a good idea to designate a new leadership team specifically tasked with analyzing potential models for different technology and labor combinations. Determine your needs for short (1-2 years), medium (3-5 years) and long term (5-10 years). Then figure out how to best implement these new models.

Focus on People and Machine Acquisition

Once organizations have a plan for meeting their talent needs, they can focus on acquiring and engaging different employee segments. Make sure that one step in the process considers the ways that software and machines can complement the skills of employees already on the corporate payroll.

If employees are asking for software that would make their jobs easier, listen to their reasoning, then have them put together a proposal and present it to leadership. Investing in automation and smart technologies is not only an investment in productivity, it’s an investment in employee acquisition and retention.

Encourage and Provide Resources for Skill Building

According to Deloitte’s Global Human Capital Trends 2016 report, three out of four executives believe automation will require new skills over the next several years. Companies interested in taking advantage of automation in order to gain market share, protect their current position in the industry, or increase productivity in other ways will do well to invest in their human capital. This sends a powerful message that machines and technology that help employees produce a better product more quickly are not a threat to jobs. Giving talented employees the resources to evolve with the changing market will be mutually beneficial.

Create Machine-Designated Work

No matter how advanced artificial intelligence becomes over the next several years, it’s hard to see how computers will match the creativity of the human mind. But smart companies have a real opportunity to use technology to enhance human creativity.

Consider the ways that human workers can benefit from automation and machine learning. For example, a piece of software called Landr uses AI to master music tracks, allowing smaller bands, who don’t have the cash to hire professional recording engineers to compete in the music industry. Is something similar available in your industry? Could you enlist the help of software developers to create the technology you’re envisioning?

Develop New Strategic Workforce and Automation Models

One of today’s biggest workforce challenges is keeping employees engaged and avoiding turnover. Retention is key when it comes to productivity, but another benefit of strong retention efforts is often overlooked: Employees who feel valued are also more creative.

When you invest in technologies that improve the quality, meaning and value of the work being done, you indirectly support your employees, sending signals that their skills are appreciated. Rather than thinking of technology as a competitor, with the right workplace culture, leadership can send the message that automation can help everyone produce work that they are proud of.

Business Leaders Face Challenges

Of course, developing the right culture and sending the right message takes time. Smart companies and leaders looking to get ahead of these changes must tackle some difficult questions first:

  • Who, where and what is the most qualified workforce?

  • How do you protect and promote creativity?

  • How do you measure productivity in this brave new world?

  • How can companies encourage workers to “race with – not against – machines?”

  • How can leadership, management, IT, HR, experts and partners plan and manage a flexible workforce?

  • How can companies continue to attract, acquire and engage the best workers for optimal cost, no matter what type of contract they have?

Finding answers to these questions will make facing the pressures of increasing automation feel more like a bump in the road than an obstacle standing in the way of productivity and engagement. Leaders can ease the transition (and alleviate the fear) for their workforce by coming up with a custom strategy that works for the whole team.

We stand at the forefront of connecting smart businesses with world-class on demand talent around the globe. Find out how Catalant experts can help your team.