The Robot Next Door: Understanding the Impacts of Robotic Process Automation 

Many are worried that the implementation of AI in business will have detrimental effects on the workforce. There are warnings of jobs being completely eliminated and automated. There is even a presidential candidate in the US who is running on a platform of Universal Income because he believes that AI will put so many workers out of a job. Right now, the focus of this fear is Robotic Process Automation (RPA) – which, technically speaking, is not really AI at all. By understanding exactly what RPA is, how it works, and how it’s being rolled out across organizations, managers can help calm the worries of their workforce and begin to reveal the positive impacts this change will allow. 

To think of RPA, think of all of the manual copy and pasting, think of repetitive and boring work that does not inspire customers or employees. Now, imagine this work is eliminated by delegating to back-end ‘robots’. This is exactly how RPA works. The enterprise, or a group of consultants, will map out manual, repetitive processes, and simply write computer code that mimics these actions. Examples include:

  • Taking data from an email and using it to update a customer address in the company database
  • Sending out a replacement credit card when a customer notifies the bank their card is lost
  • Filling out and sending accounts payable notices

One can see how this type of technology may result in the replacement or elimination of back-office admin jobs. Although this may be the case in the future, a survey of 71 RPA projects (completed in 2018) showed that only one project was used to eliminate jobs. Other projects did show some job loss, but they mainly replaced overseas workers who were on contracts and tasked with completing manual, repetitive tasks for a domestic company. 

While RPA can provide savings of cost and time, it also provides value in a few surprising ways. First, when managers look at automating some of their back-end tasks, they are forced to understand why this task is being done, and what steps could be eliminated. Many company processes have not been investigated since their establishment. A thorough investigation of companies procedures can save money by eliminating useless tasks and streamlining others. Second, by eliminating the mundane and menial tasks completed by employees, managers can free up these workers to be more creative and have meaningful interactions with customers. 

A survey conducted in 2019 showed that more than half of respondents reported an increase in employee engagement after implementing RPA. It seems counter-intuitive that when robots take over parts of employees work, they become more engaged. When one considers the fact that the robots are taking over the least-fulfilling tasks, it begins to make sense. 

As AI becomes more prevalent in the workforce, management must support their staff and provide resources to help employees adapt. Humans must become more human. Emotional connection, relationship building, and customer-centricity will become the key responsibilities of an organization’s workforce. Instead of being out of work, humans may just need to get used to their dull, robotic co-workers.