The Modern Workforce: Balancing Automation and Human Labor

Monica Eaton-Cardone

June 08, 2016

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Emotionally-charged stories about robots taking over the workforce are often just highly-sensational media fodder, but the argument isn't totally without merit.

Our need for a purely human workforce is diminishing, as automation creeps into yet another aspect of business. However, this isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Like anything else, there are ups and downs of integrating technology into our endeavors. The key is to deploy technology so as to maximize the 'ups' and minimize the 'downs.'

Embracing Technology for Service and Production

Earlier in May, U.S. fast food outlet Wendy's announced plans to replace front counter attendants with self-service, touchscreen kiosks. The company intends to begin the rollout by the end of the year; however, Wendy's is not the first company to take that same step.

Nearly half of the 7,900 McDonald's outlets throughout the European market now employ self-service kiosks, allowing customers to place their order, as well as pay, all on their own. The company already has these kiosks in of its more than 14,000 U.S. outlets, with plans to introduce them to another 1,000 stores by the end of this year.

This is not something unique to customer service, though. Businesses in nearly every industry continue to embrace technology as a means to save resources and increase production.

For example, the Chinese government plans to invest hundreds of billions of dollars in pushing more widespread automation throughout the country. The plan is to eventually set a new global standard for production sophistication, creating what Cambridge Industries Group CEO, Gerald Wong, calls “dark factories,” or fully-automated production facilities.

At the same time, even when full automation is not the end goal, businesses often turn to technology to make humans more productive. Remote work, for example, results in lower overhead, thanks to the need for less real estate, facilities, supplies and janitorial services, not to mention a much smaller carbon footprint.

Studies suggest that allowing employees to work remotely just half of the time could save businesses an average of $11,000 per employee every year. Additionally, employees with the freedom to work remotely tend to be happier, healthier, more productive and have better retention rates.

The Shortcomings of Technology

Although automation offers the opportunity for greater productivity with less labor, technology is not always the best answer.

Humans may not be as efficient or quick at performing certain tasks, but they have a much more versatile and dynamic set of skills. Robots, on the other hand, are very good at doing one specific thing.

While employing technology can assist us in performing work-related tasks, it can also complicate certain matters, such as in managing a remote team spread across the world. Remote communication can be more difficult than face-to-face interactions, there is little opportunity to bond with coworkers, and different time zones could lead to problems in syncing up schedules.

And, just as technology can create distance and increase friction between workers and businesses, it can also cause problems between businesses and customers.
When customers have no direct human-to-human engagement, they lose sight of the fact that real people are involved in the buying process. It's difficult for customers to feel in-touch with or get passionate about a business when they don't perceive any kind of human involvement.

Working Smarter

Computers don't favor one group of people over another. They don't make arbitrary judgement or disparage people. Technology's only bias is in favor of efficiency.

Naturally, technology is going to make certain tasks obsolete. We don't have professional lamplighters anymore because we power streetlights automatically using electricity instead of kerosene or oil. This is not necessarily a fact that should frighten us. Rather than trying to resist advancement, we simply need to focus on embracing technology wisely.

Automation is not a means to eliminate people from the process. Rather, technology offers us the opportunity to work “smarter.” We have the chance to boost human efficiency by letting computers handle the grunt work, while humans take on more intellectually-involved roles in the process.

If we allow technology to work in this manner, we can all enjoy a more productive society, as well as a better-educated and happier one.

Planning for the Future

New applications for technology fundamentally change our institutions and practices, and they will continue to do so, no matter how entrenched those institutions seem to us now.

Therefore, we cannot continue planning for the future while anticipating that the business and technology climate will remain static. To do that would be to plan for the future with variables that we know will change, but to treat them like they're fixed conditions.

At the turn of the Twentieth Century, 41 percent of the U.S. population" worked in agriculture. People living at that time could hardly have predicted that by the year 2000, agricultural workers would have dropped to just 2 percent of the population.

The bottom line is that, while we can't predict what kind of disrupting factors technology will bring into the workforce in the coming decades, we do know how to implement those changes.

In order to make this transition work, we need to stick to the idea of automating only what works better when automated, and leaving the rest to human hands.

Author's Bio

Monica Eaton-Cardone is an author, speaker and international entrepreneur. She's launched numerous business ventures, identifying a need and creating the necessary technologies to fill the void. She currently serves as COO of Chargebacks911, a chargeback prevention service provider, and CIO of its parent company, Global Risk Technologies. Monica excels at developing innovative, dynamic solutions that mitigate risk and optimize profitability. Find Monica on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Opinions expressed by the author are not necessarily those of WITI.

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