Easing in the Robots: How to Confront Employee Fears

By Russ Banham, Contributor

It is perhaps the most pronounced narrative in business: Across industries, intelligent machines are marching (and these robots will take your jobs). Yet, most CEOs barely mention the subject to the employees who most fear they are at risk.

Oftentimes, in their announcements of transformative projects—such as robotics processing automation (RPA), machine learning, natural language processing, and AI—business executives commend new operating efficiencies or workforce productivity, but fail to mention the impact on jobs.

This impact, of course, is profound. A recent study by McKinsey predicts that over the next 13 years as many as 70 million workers in the U.S. will be forced aside by robots. Such alarmist predictions, to no one’s surprise, are creating an atmosphere of fear in the workplace.

“It’s difficult to focus and be productive when you are worried that your job will disappear,” Cecile Alper-Leroux, vice president of human capital management innovation at HR software provider, Ultimate Software, said. “When I visit some companies, the stress is palpable.”

The question for business leaders today is how to promote the adoption of emerging technologies while adapting the current workforce to the work realities of the future, inspiring and training them in the adoption of new skills.

Confronting Employee Fears

Many corporate leaders are not addressing growing employee fears of potential job displacement, which is only compounding the fear.

“There is no doubt that RPA, machine learning, and cognitive computing tools will make work more efficient by absorbing mundane and repetitive work tasks, but there is also no doubt that people will lose their jobs,” Spiros Margaris, founder of Margaris Advisory, said. “CEOs must confront [workplace fears] if they want to retain their best and brightest and stay competitive.”

Margaris, a successful venture capitalist and workplace transformation leader, (ranked number one in Onalytica’s list of FinTech global influencers) believes that CEOs who get out in front of the impact of robots on the workforce will ease anxiety to the benefit of their businesses. “Sticking one’s head in the sand is not a solution,” he said.

“There are jobs that will be displaced involving people who have just made it into the middle class,” Margaris added. “CEOs need to show some compassion. A blanket statement that ‘people will be reskilled’ is overblown, as not everyone will be able to learn new skills. Underplaying the impact only makes people more stressed-out.”

Like others acutely aware of the impact of emerging technologies on tomorrow’s jobs, John Roese, president and Chief Technology Officer of Dell EMC, said that robots are steadily on the rise in the workplace.

“In terms of how this wave is forming, it’s a straight line that is consistent across industries, with high degrees of automation and machine intelligence inside every dimension of the technology ecosystem of a company,” Roese said.

“CEOs need to show some compassion. A blanket statement that ‘people will be reskilled’ is overblown, as not everyone will be able to learn new skills. Underplaying the impact only makes people more stressed-out.”

—Spiros Margaris, founder, Margaris Advisory

According to Roese, not only will this happen; it must happen. A company without a digital strategy for competitiveness will quickly fall by the wayside, he explained. “It’s the fiduciary responsibility of the CEO and the board to shareholders and investors for their companies to become digital businesses,” Roese said. “It is inevitable, but it will also take time.”

Jobs, Reimagined

This allowance of time and uncertainty around the full implications of emerging technologies may explain why many CEOs evade the subject. According to a December 2017 survey by Deloitte, only 17 percent of companies are ready to manage a workforce in which people and robots work side-by-side.

“Jobs need to be reimagined, which takes creativity and that doesn’t happen overnight,” Dilip Krishna, chief technology officer (CTO) at Deloitte Risk and Financial Advisory, said. “The challenge is to imagine what these jobs of the future will look like based on the likely progression in automation and robotics.”

Krishna believes CEOs should consider sketching out what this future might look like when introducing the scope of their digital transformation. “Right now, too many CEOs are focused more on the business value of process reengineering and task simplification,” he said. “Equally exciting is how extraordinary it will be for people to use these tools, doing things humans have never been able to do before.”

If used properly, the tools will create tremendous benefits for companies and people, he added. “Unfortunately, we tend to anthropomorphize these technologies, when they’re really no different than other tools introduced into the workplace over the decades.”

Henna Karna, chief data officer at XL Catlin, a Bermuda-based property and casualty insurer, agreed. “Tools like machine learning, artificial intelligence or any type of robotics using algorithms help address the volume and velocity dilemma that all companies experience with their data,” she explained. “The machines perform computational exercises involving huge data volumes at a speed and complexity that would require numerous people to process, assuming they had the time or even the capability.”

One example Karna provided was the ability for technology to aid workers compensation claims adjusters. Fifty years ago, the amount of paper data involving an injured worker was relatively small, but the exponential growth of digital data created a need for additional adjusters to manually dig through massive amounts of employee information to ferret out fraud and relevant claims.

Yet with today’s predictive data analytics modeling tools (that spot words and phrases in the mountains of data) there is less need for this many adjusters. In this way, Karna said, companies are right-sizing. “Now, the adjusters—people who weren’t data analysts to begin with—can focus on more strategic tasks, such as providing superior service to injured employees with lawful claims,” she added.

Karna agreed that the onus is on CEOs to explain to their employees what a holistic and efficient work environment could look like in future. “It’s simple for leaders to say we have to get ahead of where we are and you will all be better off for it,” she mused. “But, people need to know that machines are built by humans for humans, and this combination of humans and machines will mean faster throughput for them.”

These machines do not replace human creativity—at least not for the time being. “It will take a while for machines to replace the creative power of people,” said Karna. “The ultimate plan is a partnership of human-plus-machine. Even this will take some time.”

A New Generation

While there is still time for business leaders to find the best way to address the future of human and robot collaboration, there may be a new generation eager to rise to the challenge.

“Millennials already make up the bulk of today’s workforce,” Roese said. “For the most part, they’re digital natives who have some experience with digital transformation and the deployment of new technologies. They understand that AI and machine learning will eventually disappear into the infrastructure, becoming second nature. They know that machines are non-human and that human ingenuity is irreplaceable.”

While jobs may be lost along the way, he went on, most of them will fade away due to natural attrition—older generations retiring. “Even with today’s state-of-the-art tools, it will take at least five to ten years before we see this pivot,” said Roese. “That means that most companies have until the mid-2020s to sort it out.”

“[Millennials] understand that AI and machine learning will eventually disappear into the infrastructure, becoming second nature. They know that machines are non-human and that human ingenuity is irreplaceable.”

—John Roese, president and CTO, Dell EMC

CEOs can take advantage of this respite to plan for their future workforce with current employees. “I was talking recently with the managing director of a large Canadian company who wished he had done more to explain to employees how it its digital transformation strategy would affect their work,” Alper-Leroux said. “I told him there was still time to bring employees into the discussion, to get them involved in reimagining the future of work.”

She explained that simply asking an employee how they imagine their job can change for the better by using smart tools sends a strong message of caring.

Margaris agreed there is still time to consider how to train employees to use the emergent tools to make their jobs more interesting and valuable. Nevertheless, leaders need to educate their workforces from a place of compassion, acknowledging that some people will find it harder to earn a living wage in the new age of automation.

“As a society, we need to consider plowing some of the gains from artificial intelligence into providing a minimum income, so everyone comes away better off,” he said. “We’re all in this together.”

Russ Banham is a Pulitzer-nominated business journalist and author who writes frequently about the intersection of business and technology.