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Employee motivation in the age of automation and agility

From fear of robots taking over our lives, to automation being a threat to jobs, AI is creating impenetrable skills gaps and employee resistance to change.
Bryan Hancock

Supports private, public, and social sector clients through expertise in talent management, organizational design, and workforce development

There is a lot written about automation these days and some of it can be daunting. From fear of robots taking over our lives, to automation being a threat to jobs, AI is creating impenetrable skills gaps and employee resistance to change.

We have a more optimistic view on the age of automation.

First, we believe there will be more than enough work to go around. Our research shows jobs gained and changed by several automation and labor trends will outweigh jobs lost in the 2016-2030 period. Companies will certainly need to ensure that the effect of jobs loss is mitigated with retraining initiatives, and we are already seeing several companies leading the way in developing skills for adjacent roles.

Second, the nature of work and the workplace will evolve in ways we believe can positively influence employee motivation. This strikes us as a good thing, since other than maybe sleep, we will spend a greater share of our lives working than doing anything else. Here’s why work may be more motivating in the near future:

  1. Automation will strip away the dull and the dangerous, paving the way for more engaging work and learning. Very few total jobs are going away entirely—indeed only one percent of jobs are made up of activities that can be fully automated; parts of jobs are what’s changing. That said, automation technologies, including RPA, artificial intelligence (AI) and physical robotics, have the ability to displace a third of the current activities in over 60 percent of all jobs. The activities automation is best at including predictable and physical work, data collection and data processing. As automation strips away the rote and mundane, what remains for employees to tackle are heuristic tasks—the complex, creative tasks on which humans outperform machines. Surveys show that workers see automation as an opportunity to free up their time to make meaningful contributions, which they find more rewarding.
  2. Work redesigns alongside automation promote more team-based and agile ways of working. Because jobs are changing, companies are using this shift as an opportunity to redesign business processes and workflows in a way that enables humans to work effectively alongside machines. Many are also reconfiguring their overall design and workspaces to promote greater collaboration and less hierarchy, resulting in more team-based set-ups and agile ways of working. In turn, employees have greater autonomy to shape their day-to-day, and develop a greater sense of mastery and purpose over their contributions, which increases their motivation to drive the work. Accordingly, a New Zealand telco saw over 30 pts eNPS gains after forming Agile teams—exceeding digital natives and thus enabling to attract the best talent.
  3. Automation drives increased need for social and emotional skills in the workplace. For centuries, organizations have asked human labor to act like machines. Now, technology allows for automation to be much of this work, and what’s left is asking human labor to do what is truly human. Along with higher cognitive skills, finely tuned social and sophisticated emotional skills—creativity, innovation, advanced communication, negotiation, leadership, adaptability, empathy—will be in greater demand to drive these more complex activities. As these connections-based skills increase, so does deep human interaction. A multinational technology company has experienced strong growth in the last 12 months by leveraging learning and empathy as critical assets for unlocking innovation and external partnerships.

Together, we believe these shifts in the workplace have the potential to drive significant improvements in employee motivation. Self-determination theory sheds light on how to get employees to become autonomously motivated without prodding and continuous monitoring to do work. The theory posits that there are three broad needs that, when fulfilled, cause us to want to perform a behavior: need for competence, autonomy, and relatedness. We recommend organizations bring employees on the journey in helping them understand what’s in it for them, and pay close attention to how employees’ feelings of competence, autonomy and relatedness are shifting to tap into higher engagement and performance – and ultimately, higher work and life well-being.

The authors would like to thank Jaime Potter for his meaningful contributions to this post.

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