How To Stop Fearing Automation and Embrace Technological Innovation

Marion Steward

One of the double-edged swords of the pandemic has been accelerated automation and digitization across all industries. While the rapid adoption of digital tools is a boon for business leaders looking to streamline and mechanize tasks that are often tedious or replete with human error, this drive — coming on the heels of many other dramatic shifts in day-to-day workplace operations — can cause not only significant anxiety but even resistance on the part of employees, who may feel that their roles, livelihoods and necessity to the company are being threatened.

It’s important for managers to convey to these wary employees that they are not obsolete — just the opposite. More than ever, there is an increased need for the types of skills that cannot be automated. In fact, according to the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Future of Jobs report, skills rooted in complex thinking, innovation and problem solving are forecast to be “top employer needs” by 2025.

So how can managers with reticent employees (as well as eager ones!) help their people to embrace technological changes, retaining their much-needed institutional knowledge and soft skills while still keeping them open to new digital technologies? Here are some of the key points to emphasize, both in communicating their benefits to your team, and in proactively directing C-suite leadership towards a paradigm that leverages the power of new technologies and finds ways to imbue employees with these skills.

Getting Freed-Up for ‘Human’ Tasks

One of the most obvious and important benefits of many of the new SaaS options coming to market, particularly those that utilize AI or machine learning, is to delegate tasks that can be automated to a machine. This enables employees to avoid wasting time and energy on tasks that fundamentally do not require a human touch, instead turning their focus towards undertakings that rely on empathy, creativity and innovation.

Increasingly, we’re seeing a lot of solutions like this in the medical field: digital scribes, AI-driven case triage, testing, scanning, monitoring and machine-learning tools to extract information from electronic health records (EHRs) and insurance profiles. Unfortunately there has been slower uptake of these tools in other industries, particularly the dental field, which still struggles with lagging technological adoption and outdated processes that eat up too many man-hours. Employers need to convey to their people that learning new technologies will save them from a lot of “busy work” and enable them to direct their attention to more meaningful, challenging and satisfying parts of their jobs.

Creating a Future-Proofed Workforce

For better or worse, the future is digital — and, truly, employees know this, even many of the ones who are reticent about new technologies. Providing opportunities for employees to gain fluency and agility with these new tools will not only close skill gaps within a company, but increase employees’ own value and flexibility in a competitive marketplace. This creates a win-win; what’s good for the company is also good for the individuals’ future job prospects.

In order to upskill and reskill their employees, forward-thinking companies are using creative strategies such as gamification and reward-based training strategies. Others may outsource skill-building to bootcamps, or other institutions that follow the Silicon Valley-model of offering certificate programs in high-demand tech skills (such as through Amazon, Google, etc.) Employees who “graduate” from these programs, irrespective of previously earned college degrees, find themselves significantly more versatile and valuable in the job market (and able to command higher salaries, to boot.)

And if you’re an employer who offers these opportunities to your people, you can also expect a high level of retention; multiple large-scale workforce studies have shown that offering training is the most important weapon against employee attrition.

The Benefits of Codifying Skills

Companies that can foresee what in-demand skills they need for success — both hard and soft — and plan ahead for them will have pronouncedly better future outlooks. This is a mindful process, involving several steps: Determining what roles within a company are crucial to productivity; identifying the skills needed to perform each of these roles to optimum ability; deciding on a system of measuring or assessing these skills; and finally, implementing training programs so that existing employees can be upskilled or reskilled, rather than having to recruit anew.

Many household-name companies are focused on codifying in-demand skills, as well as pathways for employees to obtain them. The business case for doing this is clear-cut: Besides the significant opportunity and monetary cost of trying to recruit new talent whenever a skills gap arises, raising up employees to meet the skills-demand of your company creates happy workers who confer a real competitive advantage. Moreover, employees who see that their company envisions them occupying business-essential roles, and is taking the time to train them for these positions, will no longer fear these changes — rather, they will double-down with renewed energy and motivation.

Moving at the Speed of Change

Managers are ultimately in charge of taking their people to the next stage of automation; leadership must come from the top in order to generate bottom-up change. Successful managers are able to take a human-centered approach to alleviating the fear and anxiety surrounding adoption of technologies, recognizing understandable reticence while still emphasizing the party line that, ultimately, making these changes (along with relevant upskilling and reskilling) will be to employees’ benefit as well as the company’s. In this dynamic technological landscape, clear-eyed leaders know that, where widespread adoption of digital tools is concerned, there are really only two outcomes: If you’re ready, it’s an opportunity. If not, it’s a threat.

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