Automation’s Scary, But You Can’t Avoid Talking About It

We live in a world of perpetually upgraded work. Each day, work becomes a little more automated, employee and worker rewards become a little more immediate and job-related learning becomes a little more virtual.

But in order for businesses to stay at the forefront of innovation and for workers to have enough time to gain the skills necessary to use new technology, organizational leaders and managers must be willing to share what they know about emerging automation tools and their potential impact on the business. That involves open discussions about new tools that come on their radar, an exchange of case studies and other means of information gathering and dispersion.

But just how likely are leaders and workers to share what they know about work automation? Together with Theresa Welbourne, president and CEO of eePulse, we posed this question to 200 business leaders in a recent eePulse survey.

The impact of automation matters

Our research revealed some polarizing results: We found that both leaders and employees were more willing to discuss the potential impact of automation technologies if they believe that this impact would drive positive change, such as certain tasks being simplified. However, if they feared that the impact would be negative — workers might lose their jobs, for example — they were less likely to have open conversations about it.

Below is an overview of our findings:

Society predicts the worst from work automation

For both employers and employees to fully benefit from automation, transparent discussions about the potential impact of new automation technologies must occur well before implementation is on the horizon. The caveat, however, is that while our survey revealed that optimism is a critical factor in leaders’ willingness to be transparent, they are seldom optimistic about automation.

2017 survey of 4,135 U.S. adults by the Pew Research Center found:

  • 72% worry about a future where robots and computers can do many human jobs.
  • 76%  would not apply for a job where a computer program selected applicants.
  • 58% agreed there should be limits on the jobs businesses can replace with machines, even if machines are better and cheaper than humans.
  • 85% favor limiting machines to performing jobs that are dangerous or unhealthy for humans.

If the average leader or worker sees automation as a threat, our survey suggests she won’t be willing to share her knowledge about work automation. Yet, this transparency is fundamental to anticipating work evolution early enough to give workers and organizations time to adapt to automation through reskilling, relocation, collaborative work redesign or other means.

Prepare now for automation

A negative outlook on automation is no excuse to avoid productive conversations about its impact. Automation is coming, regardless of whether or not leaders and employees discuss it, so rather than hiding from it, they should prepare for the changes it’ll bring. And after all, having successful discussions about work automation comes down to how you frame the conversation.

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To have a productive discussion about automation, leaders should consult established frameworks that’ll help guide their understanding of work automation. The goal of the frameworks is to identify ways to optimize (rather than avoid) human-automation combinations that are not only more efficient, but also generate higher returns on improved performance. And, with more knowledge, leaders are also more likely to gain the level of psychological safety needed to discuss automation openly.

This article originally appeared on ReWork, a Cornerstone Ondemand publication exploring the future of work.

John W. Boudreau, Ph.D, is Research Director at the Center for Effective Organizations of the Marshall School of Business, University of Southern California (http://ceo.usc.edu/research_scientist/boudreau.html). He was formerly the director of the Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies at Cornell University, and is a fellow of the National Academy of Human Resources. Contact him at jboudreau@marshall.usc.edu.

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