Despite the steady stream of gloomy reports (some of them here) suggesting that automation will replace thousands of jobs over the next few decades, (not to mention the unlikely presidential campaign of entrepreneur Andrew Yang, whose major policy idea is a basic universal income to help workers who lose their jobs to robots), American workers remain surprisingly sanguine about the future of work.
A survey by the business process outsourcing firm Sykes Enterprises looked at attitudes of workers to the coming of robots into the workplace and found that U.S. workers were less fearful of the age of automation than popularly portrayed. Some two-thirds of those surveyed drew a positive connotation with intelligent automation-related terminology. (Picture my arched eyebrow.)
The survey consisted of 17 questions — ranging from how many people they know who have faced job loss due to automation, if any automation programs have saved them time at work this year, what they're doing to stay current with the changes in workplace tech, how their employers are preparing them for the future of work, and more. Said Ian Barkin, Sykes’ chief strategy and marketing officer:
What we found in our research is actually that over 70% of employees today would be thrilled to work side by side with automation that enabled them to be better, more effective, more accurate faster at their jobs over 70%. And in an age where unemployment is very low, and talent is hard to come by our research also suggests that prospective employees, those talented people you're trying to get into your organization, nearly 70% of them would be encouraged to join your company if you were making investments in the types of automation that would supercharge them and enable them to do their jobs better.
An overwhelming majority of those surveyed have never lost a job due to new automation technologies at their workplace--and most also noted they do not worry about losing a job due to intelligent automation. Only about 5% say they have faced job loss.
Here’s where the ‘skeptical eyebrow’ comes in. The Sykes finding is considerably rosier than Pew Research Center survey in 2018 that found that Americans expect widespread job automation in the coming decades. About eight-in-ten U.S. adults (82%) said that by 2050, robots and computers will definitely or probably do much of the work currently done by humans, according to a December 2018 Pew Research Center survey. Only a third (33%) believe it’s likely that this kind of widespread automation would create many new, better-paying jobs for humans.
Barkin, cofounder of Symphony Ventures, a BPO, which was acquired by Sykes last year, is undaunted:
The future of work is too often equated to or treated as synonymous with the technologies available to apply to work today, the automation concepts, RPA, AI, cognitive, machine learning, even cloud analytics, that is the future of work but it's so much more. And ultimately it is the application of capabilities to enable us to focus on and we design processes.
So, you know, in a somewhat overly simplistic manner, a long time ago, a robot box that washed your dishes for you would have seemed truly like magic but it's now just a dishwasher, right, and a compendium of the world's information was something that only a few could afford--an encyclopedia. It's now in everyone's pocket and so it's not so much the technology but what the technology enables.
A key finding of the Sykes survey was that workers are receptive to working with robots and automation tools that reduce the amount of boring, repetitive work now performed by humans. From the report:
Nearly three-fourths of American workers, 72.53%, say the idea of humans and automation technologies working together interests them — 79.33% of the 18 to 24 age group say they believe they would be even more effective in their jobs if they worked with automation technologies, compared to 63.68% of the 54 and older age group.
Additionally, 77.30% of the northeastern U.S. respondents believe they would be even more effective in their jobs if they worked with automation technologies, compared to 67.87% of the midwestern U.S.
Barkin views these findings as a call to arms to enterprises that current and future employees see automation and augmentation as a positive thing.
There's no secret that companies are looking to find more efficient ways to achieve the outcomes they're focused on today and looking to innovate to create different outcomes and different products and different services in the future. So, I don't really see that there's much changing in that dynamic. Enterprises need to be quite straightforward and honest with their employees about the investments they're making and the changes they're embarking on to identify how technology can enable their people to be their best selves to enable the enterprise to be its most competitive and innovative self. With that does come change and so I think open discussions around that are the only way to approach that issue
In fact, we've found in in our research that most people are actually encouraged to work with enterprises that are investing in new technologies that enable them to be more efficient in their job. While the human plus robot concept might have been initially jarring it is actually embedding into our sort of cultural work narrative in a way that's quite positive. Employees are looking for the chance to work side by side with technology and be supercharged, if you will.
Alas, reality seems to be lagging behind the enthusiasm. Two-thirds of workers in the survey say automation technologies have failed to help boost their efficiency by replacing "repetitive and boring" parts of their job.
Despite the valiant spin, this feels like one of those reports that is the corporate equivalent of pinning a rose on a pig. Nobody has a great understanding yet of how this human plus robot thing is going to work out but it’s going to be a central issue of the Fourth Revolution. To the degree that it convinces policymaker that we need not be concerned about the effect of technology on work for those with less education and in lower-paid occupations, it is a disservice.