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Automation will protect jobs, not take them

As both the Government budget and the Reserve Bank of Australia’s latest interest rate announcement laid out, there are significant economic headwinds on the horizon, thanks to inflation, supply chain disruptions, skills shortages, and the increasing likelihood of a global recession. 

In the coming months, we expect organisations to adapt to combat these headwinds. Businesses will explore ways to protect profits. Spending will slow. Costs will be constrained. Investments will need to demonstrate clear and fast returns. 

In previous slowdowns, businesses have resorted to headcount changes and restructuring to deal with harsh economic conditions. Some global businesses are already taking these steps. Yet there is another path. Investing in automation promises productivity gains that will keep firms competitive and protect against more dramatic cost-cutting measures in future.

During the pandemic, we saw a rapid uptick in technology adoption. Digital systems enabled virtual learning, remote hiring, onboarding, customer service, collaboration, and more, to continue and even improve. New working models have been enthusiastically embraced: people are in no rush to return to the old ways. 

The tougher times ahead give business leaders another opportunity to make work better. Automation used to be a dirty word, accompanied by scary predictions about widespread job losses. But in the face of critical skills shortages and advances in artificial intelligence, Australian firms realise the benefits of outsourcing work to machines. Identifying opportunities before the outlook worsens will protect revenue, helping to avoid workforce reductions if a recession hits.

Employees, too, have a greater appreciation for the value of technology, taking on tasks that are repetitive and a distraction from more important work. We waste more than a day a week on admin tasks, according to Deloitte. This is a situation many of us will recognise as we get bogged down responding to requests, waiting for approvals, or spending unnecessary time looking for information required to do our jobs.

The truth is that automation will replace a lot of work. This is a good thing. Eliminating tasks done more efficiently by technology has been the hallmark of human progress. It has allowed humans to innovate, create, and spend time more productively. The alternative, sticking with manual, mundane tasks, will see Australia’s productivity and economy decline, causing more job losses down the track.

Over time, we’ve seen whole classes of jobs disappear, from typists to telephone operators. More recently, email exchange administrators, a sub-group of IT professionals, were rendered obsolete by the advent of cloud-based online platforms. Many have retrained in emerging areas of IT like user-experience design and cyber-security. This evolution is echoed by World Economic Forum research which predicts automation will create more jobs than it replaces.

Already, in almost every large enterprise and government in Australia, we’re seeing employees in areas like IT, customer service, procurement, and HR move away from tasks like reviewing and responding to requests to focus on more productive and valuable work. 

Today, virtual agents and software collate, categorise, and complete basic tasks that would otherwise take people hours of repetitive work, wasting time and resources. This doesn’t just impact office roles. In the hospitality industry, we’ve seen automated ordering systems help restaurants manage significant staff shortages, keeping venues open that might otherwise have closed. In other words, automation has helped keep businesses open, protecting jobs in the process.

By 2025, the World Economic Forum predicts that machines will complete more tasks at work than people. This may sound to some like a dystopian future, but it’s a reality today. Take Officeworks. The introduction of a single chatbot saved more than $ 1 million in less than one year. Even better, this virtual colleague – named ‘Penny’ – helps in-store employees answer questions more quickly, so they can spend more time with customers.

It’s a win-win: customers get better service, Officeworks has saved costs, and employees can spend time on higher-value activities. Support teams can also focus on more complex tasks instead of spending hours responding to repetitive requests. 

As the global economy weakens, it presents both risks and opportunities. Organisations could turn to old tactics and cut costs via workforce reductions or short-sighted operational efficiencies. Investment in automation presents an alternative. We can save costs while making businesses more productive and competitive. As Australia’s hospitality industry has proved, automation can save jobs.

There will be challenges involved in taking this path. Leaders in both business and government will need to think seriously about retraining schemes, change management programs, and workforce redesign. Employees will do well to consider where they add the most value and focus their efforts on work and skills that cannot be easily offshored or automated.

The most successful firms will start small, test-and-learn, beginning with a narrow focus on transforming tasks that have a measurable benefit and which can later be scaled. Encouragingly, many organisations in Australia have begun this journey.

Those who tackle these challenges head-on and make a positive case for automation and its benefits can turn tighter times into a more rewarding future. By planning today, organisations will weather the storm and come out stronger – protecting jobs in the process.  

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Eric Swift

Eric Swift

Eric Swift joined ServiceNow in April 2021 as vice president and managing director for Australia and New Zealand (ANZ). He's responsible for leading the digital workflow company into its next phase of growth. Eric joined ServiceNow from Microsoft, where he served in many leadership roles over the last 20 years.

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