The Robots Are Coming: Prepare, Don’t Scare Your Employees

Co-authored by Randy Geoghagan

After the 1938 radio drama War of the Worlds proclaimed “the Martians are coming,” reports alleged that people ran panicked into the streets. Today, something not too dissimilar is happening with the adoption of robotic process automation (RPA) – software robots that execute processes in the same way a person does. But this is no hoax. In fact, research from ISG Insights finds that the rate of adoption of automation and AI technologies is set to double by 2019. And the potential for impact on employees is huge.

Yet the prospect of automation doesn’t need to be met with panic. The fact is, when properly explained and launched with employee involvement, automation can greatly benefit both employees and the companies they work for. Sadly, most initiatives that are designed to improve business performance fail because the organization doesn’t adequately prepare its employees for the change. To make this type of initiative work, here are four key steps:

  1. Demystify the robot. Let’s face it: people are terrified that robots will take over their jobs – and take over the world. How could employees not be suspicious of robots? Help employees understand what RPA is and what it is not. RPA software is configured to eliminate mundane tasks associated with many business processes – the tasks most employees would gladly relinquish. Few people relish the “swivel chair” rekeying of information between and among applications or extracting data from one system to validate it against another. Employees should view RPA “bots” as teammates, willing and able to perform repetitive tasks without complaint and with unmatched speed and accuracy.
  2. Use employees for their brains. Business leaders can create enthusiasm and support for RPA by engaging employees in developing the RPA strategy and including them in evaluating opportunities for automation. Employees know precisely where bottlenecks or redundancies occur. Their imagination and vision can be a means to rekindling the creative capacities that may have been stifled while performing recurring processes. Adhere to the adage that involvement leads to commitment. Involving employees at a higher level creates excitement around what is possible and helps them understand where and how they might fit into a changing organization. 
  3. Identify talent to guide the RPA journey. Unquestionably, the quest for cost reduction is a driver behind automation adoption – and with good reason. The ROI on a typical investment is more than 500 percent. Yet, many don’t understand from the outset the impact automation can have on speed-to-market and revenue cycle improvements and how it can lead to new opportunities for employees to perform higher-value work. Train and reskill employees to become process-assessment experts and help them acquire skills related to managing virtual workforces. Case in point: a premier insurance company recently deployed RPA and was immediately able to bind policies faster and more accurately simply because it could process broker requests for quotes by eliminating the tedious work underwriters had been performing. Ultimately, management retrained and redeployed workers to accommodate the increased demand for policy binding.
  4. Communicate early and often. Including employees in defining the impact of RPA on their jobs and the related upskilling opportunities is critical. It should be non-negotiable. The possibility that RPA will eliminate human workers is not a definitive and inevitable outcome. Give employees the opportunity to self-identify the roles within a process that are likely to be eliminated. Typically, RPA is deployed as part of a larger business process made up of a series of mundane or repetitive tasks that do not fall to individual employees. When employees and their managers begin to understand the operational complexities of RPA, they can work together to identify opportunities for creating new jobs that require new skills. While RPA may start in a specific business unit, its impact and operating results will spread rapidly once it is proven. Formalize a communication strategy and structure for discussing RPA and be prepared to take the message company-wide. Stay in front of the message. Failure to do so will result in employees coming to their own conclusions and creating their own hypotheses about the impact of robotics.

Cutting costs will always be essential for competing in the global economy – and robotics are here to stay. But along with the opportunity to automate and streamline processes comes the responsibility to prepare employees. Who better than existing employees to help lead the charge?

About the author

Randy Geoghagan founded TracePoint Consulting in 2009 after spending much of his career as a program manager running large-scale IT-system implementations for big companies. He saw a clear need in the marketplace for people who understood the process of change and knew how to facilitate it well in large companies, with a strong focus on the employee experience. From 2014 to 2015, TracePoint doubled top-line revenue, worked with several household-name clients, and grew its staff by 40 percent. TracePoint was named a “preferred SAP service provider” and appeared on the Inc. 500 list of America’s fastest-growing companies before ISG acquired the firm earlier this year.