The future of office workers – how humans and automation will combine

Employment & Skills | Reports | Technology

Written by Gabriele Ottino, CEO of Doodle

It’s not a secret that machines are taking on more and more of the jobs that humans don’t want to do.

We no longer need to expend energy remembering to build shopping lists, pay bills, or even take a kettle off the heat, as automated machines take care of these for us. This allows us to focus on bigger, better and more cognitively challenging tasks.

These mundane tasks were hard-wired into our lives, but have been easy to let go of, with most of us happy to sit back and to watch automation occur. That way we were able to eliminate taking care of an array of repetitive and boring tasks in our lives.

This is comfortable and reassuring in the home, but has created an interesting dilemma in the workplace. You may find yourself asking ‘how much of my job could be done by a machine?’, and the truth is that if your work involves a lot of repetitive or physical action, it’s likely that much of it can.

Many have been concerned about this and feel that it will make them meaningless and redundant – though the reality shows that we don’t need to panic, but can rather be optimistic.

Research has determined that fewer than 5% of occupations can actually be entirely replaced by existing automated technology, largely because the varied nature of modern work plays well to the unique talents of humans.

Imagine this. If you work in a call centre selling mobile phone upgrades to customers, you could hypothetically spend all day dialling numbers onto a phone, repeating lines of a suggested script, and recording the outcomes of this conversation into a spreadsheet. This isn’t too far removed from the basis of a simple algorithm, so it’s reasonable to assume that a machine could do your job.

But what happens when the human on the other end picks up the phone? Talking bots are getting close to a human conversation in standardized settings – Google assistant can do a pretty good job at arranging a haircut for you – but when it comes to convincing someone to part with their cash, technology is no substitute for the social and creative abilities of the human brain.

A humorous story that shows this paradigm emerged recently, that of Flippy – a burger flipping robot in California who was touted as being able to cook 2,000 burgers a day by hand. Sadly for Flippy, he was suspended on his first shift due to difficulties working in the team – who are now receiving a crash course in how to work efficiently alongside the robot.

Back in the call centre, assessing whether the recipient needs a phone upgrade, what kind of additional perks they might like and what kind of tone they might respond well to are just a few of the intricacies that we cannot quite replace with machines.

Ultimately, humans respond to humans. And you’re going to sell a lot more phone upgrades than a robot.

But a robot certainly could determine which people are most likely to pick up the phone based on location and time of day, dial the numbers automatically for you, and help record their response with high levels of accuracy, giving you more time to focus on the creative and specialised aspects of your job in the call centre that you actually like.

This helps us find our ‘flow’, hitting that feeling of energised focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in what we do. Boosting both productivity and our morale.

This is a very simple example, but it shows well how collaboration with machines, rather than competition, is the outcome we want, and are building towards – both at home in the office.

HR leaders at Johnson and Johnson use Luminoso to make sense of large pools of data on employee well-being on a regular basis, rather than analysing at intervals by hand. Meanwhile, Ticketmaster makes use of Smashfly, an automated hiring tool which processes applications to pick out the best candidates, saving vast amounts of time for their recruitment team.

Both examples give the worker more time to focus on the human elements of the job, which they very likely find much more fulfilling.

Similarly, research shows that the average UK office worker spends 25% of their working week preparing for and attending meetings, which has shown us the potential in this space for similar feats of automation.

The next version of Doodle will integrate artificial intelligence to automate anything about scheduling a meeting that doesn’t need to be done manually, learning specific behavior patterns to take your scheduling preferences into account. With less time spent organising the actual meeting, you have more time at your disposal to focus on the content the meeting is about.

A key element of allowing these partnerships between man and machine to flourish will be the building of trust, both in accuracy and the handling of data.

If that trusts breaks down, people won’t use the tool, so accuracy is hugely important. If your Alexa repeatedly ordered the wrong groceries, or if Doodle’s AI repeatedly tries to book your meetings when one of the parties was asleep, you would quickly stop using these tools.

In this sense, trust will become the most precious commodity in tech over the next ten years. Trust is so fragile, you only get to miss once and it might take years to regain it.

Many of these office tasks will always require a mix of automation and manual input. It’s clear to see that machine learning is a wonderful supplement but can’t always replace the cognition of the human brain.

People’s calendars aren’t always true to their actual behaviour, CVs will always require a degree of subjectivity and employee happiness is more complex than a string of numbers.

Still, it’s exciting to consider the potential of administrative automation for office workers of the future, part human and part machine – giving us more time to focus our energies on the work that really matters.

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