For as long as I can remember we’ve had a two-sided relationship with technology. It can be a great enabler, and it has driven the global economy for decades – but it also has a more sinister side: it has created a professional culture where everyone is contactable 24/5 or even 24/7, especially people in global roles. This has resulted in increased rates of work-related stress, which has the potential to lead to more serious mental health problems.
The next big frontier for technology, especially in the workplace, is undoubtably automation. Again, this is presented, at least in the press, as two-sided. Automation will replace some jobs, but it will also create new jobs.
Plenty has been written about how automation will reduce the need for certain jobs (ie cost cutting). For example, an OECD report released in March 2018 warned that 66m jobs globally were at risk from automation. Furthermore, the report stated that 14% of jobs in developed countries are highly automatable, while a further 32% of jobs are likely to experience significant changes to the way they were carried out.
On the flip side, plenty has also been written about how automation will create new jobs. In September 2018, the World Economic Forum (WEF) released a report discussing the rise of machines, robots and algorithms at a workplace, and how this is, in fact, more likely to create more jobs than it will replace.
Unfortunately, not enough column inches have been written about how automation can augment and enhance existing jobs. This is where I see the biggest potential for automation in the workplace, especially in the marketing and advertising industries.
In November 2015, McKinsey released a paper called the “The Four Fundamentals of Workplace Automation”, which focused more on the benefits that automation can bring to existing jobs. They asked a very simple question: “Can we look forward to vast improvements in productivity, freedom from boring work, and improved quality of life?” In answering this question, they found that “fewer than 5 percent of occupations can be entirely automated using current technology. However, about 60 percent of occupations could have 30 percent or more of their constituent activities automated.”
The McKinsey Paper also states that: “As roles and processes get redefined, the economic benefits of automation will extend far beyond labor savings… machines can augment human capabilities to a high degree and amplify the value of expertise by increasing an individual’s work capacity and freeing the employee to focus on work of higher value.”
For me, this is the key to solving a few different challenges we have in the modern workplace, but unfortunately most of the conversation around automation to date, especially in the marketing and advertising industries, has been driven by the desire for cost-cutting and increased efficiencies. Instead, we should be looking at how we can use automation to increase value by allowing our teams to focus on higher-order tasks, in turn creating more value for our clients. We should also be looking at how automation can allow our teams to have a better work/life balance – it is essential to address the epidemic of stress and depression in the modern workplace.
At Annalect we’re on this journey. We’ve begun identifying processes where there is an opportunity for us to challenge how the processes are currently performed. We then break down the process into the specific tasks carried out manually by people across the business. Only by breaking down the problem into its constituent parts can you understand which tasks can be offloaded – either to technology solutions for automation, or to more appropriate teams across the world. A core part of this isn’t just whether they can be offloaded, but also whether they should be. We then identify the tasks suitable for automation, as well as those that should still be performed by people. The goal is to enable people to make better decisions in less time. With the role for automation clear, we then decide whether this is something we need to develop internally or outsource to pre-existing technology solutions.
By taking this approach, we’re enhancing how we approach different tasks, allowing our teams to spend more time focusing on strategic challenges. Not only does this augment the work we’re currently doing, but it also greatly increases work satisfaction amongst our teams.
We’re also embracing the power of modern working platforms, such as Microsoft Teams, to allow us to build more flexibility into how we work.
It feels like we’re reaching a tipping point – there’s overwhelming evidence that the current obsession with presenteeism at work and being contactable 24/7 is bad for our mental wellbeing, which incidentally is the biggest cause of lost working hours in the UK. At the same time, we’re seeing plenty of research showing the benefits of shorter working weeks to productivity, especially if jobs can be enhanced by automation.
It’s time to move the conversation around automation from cost-cutting and efficiencies to looking at how it can improve the productivity and lives of our teams.
By Sean Betts, Managing Director, Annalect