The COVID-19 crisis has created a new machine age, according to research published today, as organizations deploy automation, robotics, and AI in a quest for business continuity, cost savings, and employee safety. But for some, this transformation may be short lived.
In fact, the end of lockdowns may see some organizations pursuing real social contact again as a competitive differentiator, with some restaurants, retailers, banks, and other businesses, that have previously ploughed money into automation and self-service, now choosing to capitalize on the pendulum swinging back towards human contact - or so Jefferson Flanders, CEO of Edtech provider, MindEdge Learning, reckons.
According to a MindEdge survey of 830 US-based managers and above, 52% of companies have increased their use of advanced automation – robotic process automation, digital employees, analytics tools, and self-service technology – in direct response to the pandemic. In some cases (39%) this has been to protect workers’ health and safety – precautions that are likely to remain in place for the long term – but in one-third of cases it has primarily been a cost-cutting measure. Protecting health and safety was a particularly strong motivation in Healthcare (45%) and Retail (41%), while companies in Technology (47%) and Manufacturing (42%) were primarily focused on cutting costs.
Nearly two-thirds of business leaders (63%) report that their workforce has been reduced, again in response to the crisis. Automation-related job losses were most prevalent in the Technology sector (57%), but close to half of managers in Manufacturing and Business Products/Services (46% in both cases) also report job cuts resulting from automation.
This plays to the popular image of ‘robots in = humans out’. Among companies that automated in the last year, 40% say that some workers lost their jobs due to the new technology. However, nearly as many (39%) report no job losses at all, while another ten percent say that automation created new jobs.
It’s worth stressing that in countries with unusually high levels of automation, such as South Korea, Japan, and others, human unemployment tends to be low. Meanwhile, the World Economic Forum’s 2018 report on the future of work predicted a net gain of 58 million jobs worldwide from ‘Industry 4.0’ technologies. But all this was before the pandemic began stomping the planet like a microbial Godzilla.
That the world of work has changed since 2020 isn’t a new idea, of course. According to MindEdge, which pitches itself as specialising in helping professionals adjust to the new version of that world, over one-third of businesses expect at least some employees to continue working remotely at the end of the pandemic – a likely underestimate as recession forces many to downsize office spaces – while over half (54%) believe that employees will be obliged to vaccinate before returning to the workplace.
But the swing back to human contact may persuade some decision-makers that it, rather than robots, automation and self-service, could be a competitive differentiator. Customers may seek out person-to-person contact (of every kind - expect a post-WWII-style ‘Baby Boom’, says Flanders). As a result, they may favour companies that show them a friendly face, rather than remind them of their months of social isolation and button clicking:
When you have process reengineering, you typically do not reverse from that – once you’ve found that you can take out some of the inefficiencies. But a countervailing aspect is I do think there will be a huge desire for subtle connection on the other side of the pandemic. You may very well find that some companies actually focus on face-to-face, human connection on the other side, just because I think people are going to be starved of that. That's a possible countervailing trend.
Flanders cites restaurants and other businesses that have shifted towards automated experiences, switching away from that approach to put human interaction back in the frame. This seems highly feasible - while machines have kept us talking and collaborating in the cloud, people’s need for face-to-face contact should not be underestimated.
MindEdge focuses on identifying the skills that humans will need to stay employable as automation spreads. Communication and other ‘soft skills’ remain the things that people are best at, and that machines find hardest to replicate convincingly, says Flanders:
The ability to communicate effectively and clearly, that's become very evident [as an essential skill] during the during the pandemic. Managers constantly report that communication and critical thinking are key to success on a project by project basis, and for the organisation as a whole. To an extent what are traditionally called soft skills may, in some cases, have been devalued. It's a great corrective to recognise that that these skills are actually tremendously important. In terms of success, creative thinking, communication, complex problem solving, even pattern recognition... these are all things that AI is still struggling with. They all speak to higher-level intelligence.
Arguably, one of the risks of an increasingly automated world is not that the machines start thinking like us (as tabloids would have us believe), but that humans start thinking like machines in order to keep the algorithms that police our workplaces happy.
Frank Connolly, MindEdge Director of Communications and Research, observes that critical thinking is becoming particularly thin on the ground:
We’ve essentially stopped [researching critical thinking], because the results kept coming in the same. We did a total of three critical thinking surveys. These included a knowledge test that involved critical thinking and digital literacy – critical thinking as it applies to the online world and the question of fake news, all of that – and we found surprisingly low scores among workforces.
The next year we said, ‘Well, maybe we just looked at too many old folks – maybe if we concentrate on young people, the digital natives, they'll have a better handle on this.’ But we found, overall, there was a very concerning low level of critical thinking, at least as it applied to the online space. We kept getting the same results, so we figured, okay, we don't need to keep asking the same questions.”
But assuming the post-pandemic world is now approaching, all organizations do need to ask difficult questions. And critical thinking will be essential.
In the supposed ‘New Normal’ world that follows, all organizations will need to recognise the damage that has been done. For every extrovert who embraces hedonism anew, there will be another struggling with mental health problems; and for every introvert who has seen little change in their world, there will be another who is now actively mistrustful of all human contact.
Many of us have lost loved ones and friends; others are struggling with ‘Long COVID’, debt, financial worries, and/or businesses that have collapsed. To succeed in the ‘new normal’, organizations will have to look it squarely in the face and recognise its reality.
How decision-makers plan for a more complex, nuanced, and challenging world will be critical; technology may help, but equally it may be that customers just wants to see a friendly face.