Is office automation here to assist you… or consume your office job? It’s a bit of a mixed bag — with some looming shakeups and long-term effects that could blindsight the unprepared.
With nearly 3 in 4 global executives reporting their companies are investing in automated tech, the trend is naturally frightening for many employees. After all, technology has a fast and wild history of displacing long-time workers from industries of all types.
To keep human roles relevant in a digitally-transformed future, awareness is key.
Let’s clear this picture up: here’s what you need to know about the future of office work in the face of robotics process automation (RPA).
Automating the front-office & back-office
Across the modern office, opportunities for automation are spotted in two main areas: the front office and the back office.
Even as the modern office layout has changed, the segmentation of front and back-office work has persisted — and so have many of its dated processes.
From backend operations to customer-facing efforts, automation is a response to the growing gap between customer demands and employee work capacity. Each role ultimately affects how convenient, responsive, and relevant a customer’s experience is.
Automation tech consolidates messy task handoffs and redundant work. As a result, they offer some of these benefits across the board:
- Employees get better communication, collaboration, and efficiency.
- Customers get better response times, convenience, and personalization.
- The wider organization cuts human error and costs while boosting overall results.
For instance, RPA enables computers to be trained on and execute predictable, routine digital tasks — without human intervention. These bots can offload many manual, repetitive tasks that bog down teams of all industries and departments.
Process automation also has proven to help organizations gather and leverage more data for the ease of employee workflows. Ultimately, this tech enhances each customer’s satisfaction.
RPA in the front-office
Front office automation supports all the heavy-lifters directly interacting with customers to meet their needs and attract new business. Candidate processes cover many of the common customer touchpoints you might expect:
- Customer support
Customers rely on a frictionless front office for exceptional service — and will gladly leave if your team is too slow or tedious to work with.
To avoid joining the businesses losing a collective $62 billion annually, automation is key. In fact, it will likely become a non-option to remain competitive as Gartner estimates front-office automation to skyrocket a hefty 30% by 2023.
Everything from contextual email marketing to FAQ chatbots is helping the customer remain happy and engaged from the moment they show up. RPA unclogs work queues that are often jammed full of tedious labor, like business hours phone calls and sales performance reporting.
This leaves teams more capable to handle more valuable external-facing projects, like marketing campaign design and proactive customer checkups.
RPA in the back-office
Back-office automation supports all teams organization-wide with the resources and actions needed to succeed — while rarely or never interacting with customers directly.
Actual products and services are created and fulfilled here, while the front office focuses on selling and helping customers get the support they need.
Many backend departments carry some of the vital administrative work and specialized needs (ex. consumer tech support) of their customer-facing teams.
Other back-office departments cover managing the needs of the organization itself, including its employees and finances.
Together, an organization’s back-office teams may include, but are not limited to:
- Human resources (HR)
- Information technology (IT)
- Risk management
- Product/service research & development (R&D)
RPA helps organizations ensure these internal-facing efforts run lean and smoothly. While the back-office is sometimes neglected in business growth efforts, dynamic business management is vital to the long-term survival of an organization.
In fact, the effects of the pandemic have shown that a dynamic backend keeps organizations thriving even in rough times. Great use of the back office keeps operations funded and running.
The supporting role of bots in human workplaces
From the front to back, or end-to-end, automation lets businesses pay you, fund operating costs, and maintain high-quality work — without expanding their payroll.
In other words, bots lower the need to shell out extra to cover overtime and additional staff. They also clear space for each employee to tap into their own human-exclusive strengths.
With the sum of these parts, businesses can keep you around and produce more value with less.
How do basic bots keep me employed?
Much of today’s office automation is basic but effective at absorbing low-priority tasks that clog your day. As a result, you get the invaluable ability to handle the demand that another employee would’ve been needed to fulfill.
Problem: In the workplace, the organization’s bottom line keeps the business alive — and keeps you paid. As demand increases, businesses must either hire or put more hours on existing employees to grow.
In the midst of a pandemic, hiring isn’t an ideal survival tactic. Inevitably, increased demand with no extra staff means that workload gets stacked onto the remaining team. The results of overtime can be messy:
- Congested task queues
- Skyrocketing stress
- Reduced quality of work
- Rapid employee turnover
- Frustrated customers
Overworked businesses may ultimately lose more revenue. In worse cases, they can enter a cycle of scaling downward that arrives at downsizing and outsourcing.
Solution: Automated businesses turn an upfront cost into long-term “staff” without the human hiring and overtime expenses. Offloading menial tasks will cut your day-to-day queues to refocus your valuable time where it matters most.
For example, customer service chatbots can field tons of FAQ questions that jam many phone and email queues. Live reps can have more time to handle complex questions during business hours. With better focus, they can also hit ticket resolution benchmarks more consistently.
When businesses can get bigger jobs done with the same team versus hiring, you can keep your paycheck.
How do bots use AI to expand my value in my job?
Artificial intelligence (AI) in an office automation system takes bots further by augmenting humans to be more valuable. The key lies in an ongoing transition from legacy models towards more AI-enhanced RPA automation.
Problem: Consider how much of your daily time is tied up in exhausting admin tasks or repetitive actions. Often, performing these tasks isn’t why you were hired and yet you might spend far too much of your time on them.
Ironically, all the digital admin tasks that pad many of today’s office roles leave humans behaving like robots. Forward this email, copy info from this PDF, compile this spreadsheet into a report, and so on… it’s all so draining.
Meanwhile, your true value lies in thinking critically and engaging with other humans to generate ideas.
From decision-making insights in analysis roles to customer relationships in sales, you should be free to be “human.” Instead, the workday clock dwindles to its last hours — and you’re sifting through your inbox to reply to the right email for the 50th time today.
Solution: Bots support humans so they can spend less time on tedious labor — and do the creative, collaborative efforts that computers can’t. Machine learning tech gives these automations an upgrade to learn from past actions. As a result, they proactively help humans with the right info at the right time.
For example, automating the front office equips organizations to automatically collect vital customer data. The back office can then instantly store and rapidly recall customer data without going back and forth to request and confirm info.
In this case, AI chatbots can remember which customer they’re speaking to and suggest relevant “menu options.” If an issue needs to be escalated, they can hand off relevant info to live customer service reps.
The benefits of AI-enhancement comes two-fold:
- Firstly, automation uses everything from customer demographics (age, gender, location) and sales history to back-office IT records. This helps cut a customer’s time speaking with the chatbot.
- Reps can then leverage back-office RPA to access other interdepartmental records from IT and more.
The result is a seamless support ticket resolution of a complex issue — topped with a personal human touch only you and machines together can provide.
Should I even worry about bots taking my job?
Despite today’s bot-human team dynamic, you’re right to be wary.
Automation will realistically be used to replace humans when possible. That last bit is the condition we should focus on.
While bots may be ideally helping you in the workplace, what happens:
- When automation offloads too many of your tasks?
- When human decisions are reliably automated?
When automating end-to-end, organizations effectively break the walls that keep departments siloed and slow to collaborate. However, this hyperautomation can sometimes completely circumvent humans for a near-instant user experience.
Consider how some of today’s e-commerce customer service chatbots can help:
- Reply to a damaged package claim.
- Offer alternatives.
- Trigger a replacement or a refund to be sent.
Behind this front-office interaction are tons of back-office automation. From risk management to inventory management, this once required human decisions at each touchpoint.
To successfully resolve this request, staff from different departments would have to:
- Weigh the chances of fraud.
- Check if replacement items are in stock.
- Determine if the company can afford a loss without verifying the claim further.
Now, some of these actions can be done without a human via office automation.
The catch? Humans are often still needed in many cases. Escalation may be needed, and someone has to be there to untangle more complex situations.
The fully humanless scenario that many fear is a bit distant today. That said, advancements in technologies like conversational AI are quickly bringing us closer.
What tasks will RPA take on?
To accurately break down modern RPA, think of your job as a collection of tasks and actions rather than a complete identity. This simplistic structure keeps a bot from completely absorbing your job today.
At a glance, roles that are ideal for robotics process automation are:
- Demand lots of labor time
- Defined with a clear start and end
Both front-office and back-office have plenty of tasks that fit this template. If a process is often the same each time it’s performed, it’s likely ideal to automate.
Marketing email drip campaigns can have a clear, predictable trigger (i.e. providing an email for an ebook or a newsletter).
Customer service onboarding carries tons of predictable steps that fall in sequence. Gathering documentation, email requests for customer info across departments, verifying identities, and onward.
Accounts payable manual invoicing often involves physically copying info from PDFs into appropriate systems, and requesting corrections of errors. Updating to directly integrated payment systems can automatically collect, send verification emails, and fix errors.
What RPA bots alone won’t yet do is:
- Have fluid, topic-hopping conversations
- Make complex decisions
- Provide a natural humanlike presence
This, however, is where other digital tools come into play — and where the true concerns over job loss remain.
Will jobs be eliminated by office automation?
As RPA makes use of other digital tools like AI, more high-value roles will fit the scope of automation.
Various technologies across the digital operations toolbox will chip tasks away from human jobs over time. As more tasks are absorbed by automation, some existing jobs will become thin, and eventually obsolete.
Despite the ideal of RPA augmenting jobs, the realistic goal will always be to replace where possible. Among the most vulnerable, AI office automation is expected to impact these jobs most:
- Traditional analytics jobs
- Traditional managing & supervising jobs
These roles don’t typically prioritize interpersonal skills to be successful. More importantly, they demand higher pay which would incentivize peeling these jobs away if possible.
In fact, some intricate decision-making roles are already using predictive AI to “bot-ify” their workflows. For example, existing tech in sales performance analysis can turn numbers into easy-to-understand words with nearly no human input.
In the next five years, this humanless automation will no doubt progress exponentially. This is not necessarily a bad thing in the long run.
However, displacement might not be resolved quickly. A gap between job creation and elimination is something all office employees should be aware of.
Will new jobs be created by automation?
When automations become more integrated, a domino effect may lead to restructuring workplaces — and the jobs within — as we know them today.
The workplace has always continuously evolved alongside technology to develop more fitting roles. Naturally, automation has already triggered the creation of some new roles to meet the needs of the future.
Although it can be tricky to predict the future, some new jobs are likely to focus on either:
- Ensuring the success of automation-related technologies
- Deepening human skillsets for non-bot roles
Working with new digital technologies requires staff that design, implement, and manage them. Keeping up with continuous process renovations requires lots of time and focus. Dedicated jobs like these could help promote success:
Digital human resources may be necessary to put humans and machines in the right roles for their success. For instance, these roles might assign, relocate, and decommission bots as needed.
RPA developers are already working within businesses to ensure successful hyperautomation. They exist to plan and implement healthier processes and automations for organization-wide integration.
On the other side, narrowing and deepening today’s broad skill sets might be in the cards for human-suited jobs.
Strong interpersonal skills and creative thinking could hold more weight in a bot-driven workplace. Employees that excel in these areas are likely to offset their other increasingly obsolete skills.
Citizen developers are a strong example of existing employees leveraging creative thinking to support digitization. Using low-code platforms to design automations, frontline staff put their unique experience to the pavement in addition to their typical duties. As employees gain experience, this foundation could help them transition to more dedicated roles.
Keeping your value in the wake of robotics process automation
Ultimately, workflows will always be malleable and employees would be wise to watch for change. Many businesses that held out against remote work were forced to embrace some form of digital transformation last year.
As post-pandemic office automation moves from survival to competitive edge, exploring your “human” side might become your biggest advantage in the job market.