• April 22, 2024

Robotic Process Automation has been hailed by early adopters and prognosticators as a transformative technology. Corporate leaders thinking in terms of productivity, efficiency and cost can point to early results from RPA deployments across a multitude of industries to support that notion. But, while many of those executives might be thinking about how the technology could enable them to eventually reduce headcount, not all of them are considering what the human cost will be or how it will affect employees, whether they are displaced or not.

It’s not inevitable that every RPA deployment will result in human workers losing their jobs. Indeed, the industry has been careful to promote the technology in terms of freeing up employees to focus on more high-value, creative work that can’t be automated. But, it’s a natural consequence of hearing the term “automation” for human workers to become nervous about, if not outright hostile to, efforts to implement RPA. It could quite literally affect their livelihood.

Companies that enter RPA journeys with a clear vision, commitment to an effective change management strategy and a comprehensive communication plan have a much better chance of achieving a high level of employee buy-in and, eventually, successfully scaling RPA in the organization.

Be Careful with Lennie

The rate of technological advance and humans’ ability to adapt have tended to increase in tandem throughout history. According to Astro Teller, head of the Google X Laboratories, however, humanity is at a point in our technological evolution where advances are accelerating much more quickly than our ability to adapt. This has led to a great sense of unease with technology. RPA is part of that disruption.

You might go to school for four years, it could cost you several hundred thousand dollars, and, upon graduation, your training might not even be relevant, notes Teller. And, that’s very scary, to a lot of people.

For back-office and administrative employees who may have been doing the same work for years, hearing that a piece of software can replicate your efforts can be frightening. And, because RPA is still nascent in business, there are few established standards in terms of the steps they should take to address employee concerns during deployments. As a result, some organizations are creating a suboptimal working environment.

“They’re not doing it intentionally,” says David Hickey, CEO of Alirrium, a reseller and integrator of RPA technology. “RPA is a newly emerging technology. Like Lennie from Of Mice and Men, some companies have started deploying this software without realizing the power that adding a digital workforce puts in their hands. Whatever process you unleash it on, it will do exactly what you tell it to do. But, the downstream impacts can be detrimental to the organization if not properly managed.”

In the end, it is the responsibility of the end user to thoroughly and consistently communicate the impending change, its benefits, the value to current employees and any impact RPA might have on organizational headcount. Only strong, effective leadership, fully invested and supportive of RPA, can ensure effective practices and messaging that reduce uncertainty, tension—and perhaps open revolt—among employees apprehensive about automation.

Best Practices to Reassure Employees

Clear communication needs to be part of a formal change management strategy that corporate leaders must implement alongside a commitment to scaling the technology. But it isn’t the only move an organization can make to ease tension and uncertainty among employees.

Companies that commit to automation will need to create new job functions to support RPA implementation. An organization might need to add business analysts to identify processes and design RPA robots, coders to build and test them, administrators to manage them and project managers to oversee the initiatives. Communicate new opportunities to existing staff early and often.

Also, if the promise of RPA is truly to liberate human beings from repetitive process work and focus their efforts on more creative endeavors, investing in retraining will enable companies to effect that transition without onboarding new hires while simultaneously reassuring employees that there is a place for them. Offer existing employees ample opportunities to take advantage of retraining.

Both tactics require leadership with vision that is dedicated and fully supportive of providing the organization with the resources to successfully scale RPA programs.

Managing Change through Clear Communication

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From the perspective of communication, according to a report from Knowledge Capital Partners for RPA provider Blue Prism, there are two main areas that require a clear, consistent messaging strategy: how RPA will add value to the employee experience and, if necessary, how any downsizing will occur.

Communication around how employees will benefit should include focusing on how they will have more time for less repetitive, more engaging work; and that they will be able to acquire new skills and thrive in new roles. Successful organizations also stress to employees that a focus on customer service and innovation will be rewarded and foster a perception that robots are co-workers on the team making their lives easier.

More challenging is getting in front of the notion RPA might cause layoffs. According to the KCP research, more than half of companies polled (56 percent) said they really do deploy excess labor capacity caused by RPA within the work unit. Many companies said they used that capacity as an opportunity to take on more work. Twenty-two percent of companies reported that they did, indeed, lay off some workers. Effective messaging should not ignore this possibility.

It should also stress, however, that waiting for natural attrition, redeploying staff, removing headcount from outsourcing suppliers and changing the onshore/offshore mix will all be outlets for reducing headcount before attacking redundancy through layoffs or early retirement.

Conclusion

These options might not initially be apparent to organizations struggling with employee pushback against RPA. End users should tap educational resources of their RPA provider for additional strategies to reduce uncertainty and increase comfort among staff. If they are engaging a consultant or an implementation partner, their expertise may also be valuable.

Mostly, however, employees will react positively to strong leadership that believes in RPA and its role as a force multiplier, rather than simply a cost-saving measure.

“This comes down to the perspective of your leaders,” Hickey concludes. “If you have a strong leadership core that understands the success of a company really is derived from the talents, passions and efforts of their people, they will be successful. If they make decisions based only on short-term bottom-line considerations, they will decimate morale and their workforce will only be thinking of how they can get another job at another company.”

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