Workplace Automation vs. Hiring: Factors to Consider

Employee using workplace automation to direct a machine at work

When people think of workplace automation, they most likely picture robots serving burgers at a fast-food chain or completing tasks on an assembly line. However, automation also takes the form of many day-to-day tasks like withdrawing money from an ATM or yelling “speak to a representative!” when making a customer service call.

Automation has been an indisputably disruptive power in the modern workplace. Widespread use of the internet became the standard for engaging with customers, creating enormous time and cost-saving opportunities for businesses. More recently, machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) have created a pathway for workplace automation to replace employees in more knowledge-based jobs.

Creating the best mix of automation and hiring for your business means first understanding automation, then knowing what factors to consider. Here is what you need to know to feel confident as you make this important decision for your company.

Workplace Automation Defined

Modern automation in the workplace is the process of using systems and technology to complete a task with little or no direct human involvement. It has long been present in the workplace, handling mundane, routine tasks humans would rather not do.

While dialogue surrounding workplace AI and automation almost exclusively focuses on the number of jobs lost, automation technology typically takes on certain job functions where humans are inefficient, inconsistent, or exposed to risk. One study conducted in the UK found that technology has created more jobs than it has destroyed in the past century.

Identify the workplace automation options for your business by considering the different types of AI and robotics capable of performing specific tasks or processes. Below are three broad categories to help you get started.

1. Robotic Process Automation (RPA)

This is a form of automation that uses robotic technology to perform routine, high-volume, low-complexity, administrative white-collar tasks. Invoice processing, inventory management, and delivery are a few examples of RPA.

2. Cognitive Automation

This category of workplace automation uses advanced technologies such as text analytics, natural language processing, data mining, pattern recognition, AI, and machine learning to complete more-complex tasks. Common applications include customer service chatbots and lead-scoring software that empowers sales teams to pursue only the most qualified leads.

3. Social Robotics

The most controversial of automations, social robots, interact with humans and each other in a socially acceptable fashion, conveying intention in a human-perceptible way. They are empowered to resolve problems autonomously and interact or collaborate with humans through the combination of sensors, AI, and mechanical robots. Social robots have shown up in professional healthcare settings as well as more experimental uses like driverless cars.

Now that you have a better understanding of automation technology and examples of how they are used, lets walk through some of the factors you should consider as you are deciding between a new hire and implementing a form of automation in your business.

What Problem Are You Trying to Solve?

Do you want to manufacture a product more efficiently? Are you working to decrease the amount of time your customer service reps spend on the phone resolving issues? Or, maybe you are looking for ways to increase the number of carryout customers you can serve at your restaurant.

Whether you are trying to speed up a process, cut costs, or increase top-line revenue, you need to understand the specific problem so you can better evaluate the relevant factors before deciding whether to employ workplace automation technology instead of hiring.

HR and automation experts Ravin Jesuthasan and John W. Boudreau suggest deconstructing the job that you are thinking of automating before determining if automation is a viable option. That means listing all the tasks associated with a position. From there, you can decide which aspects of the role (if any) are suitable for automation.

For example, if you are thinking about ways to improve your customer service complaint response time, you would start by listing all the steps in the current process. It may look something like this:

  • Retrieve customer complaint from the email queue
  • Determine the proper category for the complaint and assign a case number
  • Route the complaint to the appropriate department
  • Assign the case to an employee in that department
  • Have the employee contact the customer to facilitate a resolution
  • Document the agreed-upon resolution
  • Email the customer a copy of the resolution
  • Close the customer complaint

From there, you can investigate the viable options for using workplace AI to automatically route complaints, or email and text message automations that trigger messages based on customer responses.

How Will Workplace Automation Impact Current Employees and Customers?

When deciding whether to automate instead of hiring additional staff, you must also consider how it will impact both your employees and customers. Younger employees who have grown up with technology woven into almost every aspect of their lives may be quite happy having a Siri- or Alexa-automated assistant as a co-worker.

Conversely, generations of workers who are not so tech-forward may feel anxious, confused, or threatened. As such, introducing automation into your business may require additional budget for re-training or upskilling.

Researchers are making advances in algorithms that simulate the most human of intellectual attributes, such as curiosity and humour. However, if your business is one where customers expect high-touch, personalised interactions or nuanced exchanges that require social intelligence, you may want to think twice before automating those functions. Salespeople in luxury sectors and real estate, healthcare, and businesses that provide social services all fall into this category.

How Do You Plan to Measure Success?

Today’s B2B and B2C customers require a blend of digital and human services that provide simple, transparent, customer-focused solutions. That means your decision to automate processes cannot simply focus on implementing the newest, “shiniest” tech tools in your industry. Rather, it only makes sense if it improves your customer experience, allows employees to remain engaged in their roles, and solves problems that allow your business to thrive.

To ensure that you have created clear metrics for determining if workplace AI or other automation technology is better than hiring, revisit the problems you are solving and add a quantifiable goal. It may be a dollar-specific cost savings, a reduction in errors, or higher ratings and reviews. Whatever the metric, tracking metrics will help validate your decision or force you to consider an alternative to meeting that particular business goal.

Learn How to Navigate Tomorrow’s Workforce

Understanding workplace automation will remain an important requirement for today’s businesses. But, to remain competitive, business owners must also keep abreast of emerging trends and changes in the local, national, or global workforce. Download our Future of Work eBook for information and insights to help you think ahead—and stay ahead—when creating your workforce strategy.