standing on the edge
PHOTO: Tim Trad

ShipMonk, an ecommerce fulfilment provider, is no stranger to robotics and automation. It uses these technologies to reduce its picking and packing times and to drive revenues, CEO Jan Bednar said. The company is also no stranger to soothing employee fears about job losses due to the introduction of these technologies.

When ShipMonk deployed a robotics process automation application, “I told my employees that they would have nothing to fear due to automation for two reasons," Bednar said. "First, we have an environment that is very conducive to continued education. Employees who were interested in receiving training in the maintenance and operation of these robotics could absolutely receive it.” Second, he said: “I was very transparent with them that our investment in robotics would mean more growth and less hires — but not job cuts.”

Bednar was spot on with his actions. The theory behind RPA is that its automation capabilities will free up capacity. But it should come as little surprise that when a company decides to implement an RPA solution, its employees get nervous.

What to Do With Excess Capacity?

“RPA clearly frees up capacity,” said Alan Walker executive vice president and global lead of Digital Insurance at Capgemini. “The question then becomes, what do you do with the capacity that is now free? The company has a choice: it can redeploy it, as the conventional model suggests, or it can get rid of people and save money. Of course, there are always going to be companies that get rid of some employees to save money.”

But the more common model is one in which RPA frees up capacity in bits and pieces throughout a day or for certain parts of a process, not for an entire job. Walker gave the example of an employee in an insurance company’s claims department. In a standard process, the employee gets information from multiple sources, copies the information from those sources in one place and then assesses the claim. That whole process could take 20 minutes, depending on the claim. RPA could automate that process of collecting and aggregating the data into one place, leaving the employee with more time to actually analyze the claim. “What RPA means in this scenario is that you are not laying off anybody,” Walker said. “At worst, it probably means you won’t be hiring as many people as you once did.”

Related Article: Busting 8 Robotic Process Automation Myths

Transparency Is Essential

But try explaining that to workers. Employees are not stupid — they are aware of such stats as the one from MindEdge Learning, which found nearly half (42 percent) of American managers say automation and robotics will lead to a net loss of jobs in their respective industries, compared to just 18 percent who say automation will help create jobs. The way to win over employees is to offer promises to the extent possible, and explanations, such as the one that ShipMonk’s Bednar gave, of what RPA would mean for the company. More growth and less hires in that case.

Besides being the kinder and more humane approach, transparency is in companies’ best interest. They will need their employees to help them map out the processes that RPA is to automate. “No one should be lying to employees,” Walker said. “You should be transparent. You should explain the objectives and motives behind the RPA program. And if the RPA program is there because the company is shrinking and it needs to save money and cut employees, then I advocate transparency in that case too. It is a much harder change management issue but transparency is always a must.”

Related Article: How to Survive When the Robots Come for Your Job

RPA Change Management Tips

For any employer looking to introduce RPA into their company, the following change management suggestions can help.

Map Out Your Automation Goals

Start at the end and explain to employees exactly what the goal is for the process automation, said Drew Taylor, founder and CEO of strategic consulting firm D Taylor Group. “Highlight how it will, and won't, impact their roles and responsibilities. Paint a clear and vivid picture of what their day will look and feel like after the process automation is fully implemented.”

Listen, Listen, Listen

“Allow employees to fully unpack their fears, concerns, and feelings about the process automation. Until employees believe they are heard, and understood, they will not be open to moving forward in their thinking," Taylor said. 

Heather R. Younger, founder and CEO of Customer Fanatix, agreed: “Tactically, companies should initiate listening sessions with all employees and let them know what leadership is thinking and truly hear the employees out.” 

Make sure to tie the thoughts to customer feedback, if possible, she said. “This should be done before a final decision has been made, or else the listening appears to be hollow. The employees want to know that their words mean something and that they also have some control of what their workplace looks like.” Finally, at those listening sessions, let employees know that the leadership team will be forming an innovation or automation council to guide the organization in the right direction, Younger said. “Promise and deliver upon consistent communications around what decisions are made in those councils to all employees. Again, focus on building trust and transparency.”

Keep the Focus On People

Many business leaders commit the mistake of viewing RPA as just another IT project when in fact, it is all about its people, said Siyong Liu, business development manager of CFB Bots in Singapore. “At the end of day, employees are simply looking for an equitable distribution of the gains from automation.”