The COVID-19 pandemic has introduced a number of challenges for workers, but it also may be aggravating existing challenges. Automation is one of them, according to some researchers, consultants and policymakers.
COVID-19 "has the potential to accelerate the process of automation, as employers substitute workers with computers and robots that are unaffected by pandemics," according to a July working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.
Specifically, the paper's authors found that the "American Heartland" region had the highest concentration of automatable jobs, although occupations with "high viral transmission risk," which tend to be in the service sector, "are required in all local economies." Women are twice as likely as men to work jobs that are at high risk of both COVID-19 transmission and automation, the authors said. Women with some postsecondary education but less than a bachelor's degree were the subgroup in the analysis with the highest risk of both transmission and automation.
Such automation is beginning to emerge even in industries outside the service sector. Pharmaceutical manufacturer Takeda, for example, recently used robotic process automation software to speed up paperwork processing for patients in a clinical trial for a COVID-19 treatment, and the company now plans to "train thousands of staff to build and use software bots for themselves," Wired reported in June.
The promise of a 'bionic organization'
Examples similar to Takeda's are a sign of what’s to come, according to a recent white paper published by Verizon and Boston Consulting Group. The firms argue that the pandemic "is forcing change at an exponential rate," further integrating technology into business operations and changing employee expectations for areas like engagement, flexibility and technology.
The paper's authors also said that these shifts mean employers will place more emphasis on creating a "bionic organization" in which "technology and data fuse with humanity."
"Previously, organizations have spent all their time on standardization [and] routines,” said Sampath Sowmyanarayan, president of global enterprise at Verizon Business and one of the paper’s co-authors. "In the future they're going to say, 'how do you enable creative productivity and creativity to solve problems that don't exist today?'"
A bionic organization emphasizes intellect and sound decision-making, but it also values what Verizon and Boston Consulting Group called "the heart," or the act of inspiring and empowering employees through culture.
There are obstacles to providing such a culture, however. Workers have a variety of digital tools at their disposal, perhaps even more so during the pandemic with the rise of tools that enable remote work and flexible work schedules. But managerial and leadership styles have not evolved alongside these shifts, Sowmyanarayan said.
"That causes burnout," he added. "It's like ten pounds of s--- in a five pound bag, and at some point the bag breaks. We have to address that up front."
The remote-work environment provides several opportunities to do so, Sowmyanarayan said. Employers can, for instance, humanize virtual meetings that lack a conventional human touch. They might also recognize that it can take longer to complete certain projects in such an environment. "If you're trying to launch a new product … it's significantly more difficult in a remote-only world."
Another managerial tip is to focus on employees' output of work, rather than the hours they input, Sowmyanarayan said. That goes in tandem with being flexible about work hours and increasing one-on-one time with managers. "We have to change our managerial styles to this new era, and I don't think we've changed [them] enough."
Training that keeps pace with automation
Corporate training also has room for improvement because such programs generally have not been the most effective at medium-term skill development, Sowmyanarayan said; "At the core, most corporations worry about training what's relevant for them as opposed to what's relevant for the employee."
Training programs could focus more on broad reskilling rather than on individual technologies or systems, he added. Delivery is also important to keep in mind. Sowmyanarayan said he subscribes to an SMS-based training program, and there are a variety of other training platforms — including virtual reality and augmented reality — that learning and development experts view as increasingly viable for skill development in the next decade.
With attention spans limited and distractions increased as a result of the move to remote work, employers will also need to tweak techniques, Sowmyanarayan said. "You can't take techniques that worked in classrooms and then move it onto online and expect the same results; it just doesn’t work."
He also further distinguished "knowledge training," or becoming smarter on a specific technology or platform, from "skills training," or training on something broader that allows workers to be more effective at their jobs. "Everyone's focused on the first, not on the latter," Sowmyanarayan said. "The second one is also difficult for employees because the ROI on skills training is not always apparent up front."
Employees need to have vision as well as the thirst to learn, he continued. "Otherwise their head is not in the game."
The continuous nature of learning also may be important. "People think learning is a one and done — not at all. You’ve got to keep learning," Sowmyanarayan said, though he acknowledged this can be difficult for workers to accomplish when facing burnout.
Ultimately, employers need to establish an effective relationship between workers and technology, he said; "It's got to be very well-oiled." Data, Sowmyanarayan continued, should not be haphazardly used to make decisions, but it should be used to identify automatable, repetitive tasks that technology can handle. "And then you focus employees on tasks that require empathy, creativity and cooperation."