How to have the “automation talk” with your employees

Illustration by Calvin Sprague
Illustration by Calvin Sprague
Image: Calvin Sprague
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“Automation” is a loaded word. Not for what it is—artificial intelligence handling the busywork, so humans can tackle larger problems—but for what it implies: Threats of job elimination, dehumanized processes, and that those at the heart of this change, the employees, won’t have a say in any of it. 

Technology will continue to upend the way we work. Understandably, that uncertainty can be daunting. Not knowing what’s going to happen is exciting when you’re watching a prestige television drama, not when your employment is concerned. 

Humans have a long history of fixating on the things technology destroys instead of imagining the benefits it can empower. People were upset with Gutenberg and his printing press because they couldn’t fathom a future in which the written word wasn’t painstakingly rendered by hand. It was easier to focus on the hundreds of out-of-work monks than to imagine a future in which millions of people could read and own books. 

One way to calm the naysayers is by pointing to the numbers: Over the past 140 years, technology has created more jobs than it’s destroyed. AI is poised to eliminate 40 million jobs, but by some estimates will generate 65 million new ones. Data, however, isn’t exactly going to sway those who believe that the rise of the machines is upon us. 

The key to convincing skeptics and ushering in the next wave of AI in the workplace is to start imagining what those 65 million jobs will be. It’s hard to be afraid of the future if you have a hand in shaping it.

In its new report Work 2035: How People and Technology Will Pioneer New Ways of Working, Citrix explores where the world is headed based on our ever-advancing tech. In conjunction with a panel of experts—academics, think tanks, multinational board members—and 1,500 surveyed business leaders and employees, Work 2035 is both a glimpse into the future and a predictive diary of how people might feel about that future. There are mixed emotions.

We’re dissecting these visions and reassembling them to explore how they will impact workplace experience, or as we call it, WX. By understanding WX, leaders can own their responsibility in shaping it to fit a changing world and future of work.

For your workforce to embrace this new reality in which automation makes their lives easier and more productive, first, you’re going to have to talk to them about it.

The duality of man and machine: freelancers, or augmented employees?

Automation is nothing more than using technology to take care of simple tasks. But as technology has advanced over the years, so has the definition of a “simple task.” A century ago we were just adapting to marvels like radio communication and the ballpoint pen. Now, we have self-driving cars, immutable ledgers of the blockchain, AI-powered assistants, and near-instant language translation.

While technology has increased our ability to manufacture and transport goods, this next wave of algorithms and AI could drastically alter how companies operate. Instead of relying on a permanently employed workforce, by 2035, companies could shrink in size while relying on “swarms” of freelance teams contracted, assembled, and managed by platforms. Think of ride-sharing and food delivery apps, but for a vast swath of knowledge work. 

What was once an ad-hoc process of hiring freelance labor will become formalized and transparent—large gig platforms can keep a running account of freelancer and client work histories, assigning them an overall rating that could punish bad actors while enabling skilled, high-rated workers to command better wages. 

This seems like the logical next step from the employee perspective—some 60% believe that permanent employment will be rare by 2035. And can you blame them? Over the past decade, the gig economy has grown 15%. Most are familiar with rounds of layoffs leading to contractor hiring sprees. It makes sense: Why pay extra to retain a full-time employee when there’s a growing freelance labor force that costs less to hire?

Employers, however, don’t believe the gig-economy hype. Just 19% of business leaders believe that permanent employees will become rare, while less than half of the leaders surveyed in Work 2035 believe that freelance labor will make up a majority of their future workforce. Instead, 83% see automation leading to a sea-change in how companies invest in their employees. 

In this future, AI will take care of tedious tasks like scheduling meetings and dealing with email, which will free-up employees to tackle entirely new problems and projects. A company’s AI platform will help workers prioritize their time—nudging them towards small efficiencies (“Hey, it seems like you write best in the afternoon compared to mornings.”), while presenting opportunities to learn new skills (“There’s a virtual training on information design later this week you might be interested in.“). Companies will grow in size as they compete to retain their most valuable asset: talent.  

What’s more, this AI-powered, augmented-worker future will also create an entirely new industry of AI professionals to manage, develop, and implement this entirely new field within every industry. The job boards of 2035 will see titles like Robot Trainer, VR manager and Chief AI Officer. Despite what science fiction might tell us, the rise of the machines will be led by humans, not robots.

The rise of the machines will require a human touch

If the power of AI is in its ability to make your human employees better at what they already do, then a good first step isn’t just explaining how the technology works, but giving them the skills and agency to imagine and adapt to this new future. 

You shouldn’t need an engineering degree to understand the future of AI. It’s the soft skills—communication, decision-making, problem-solving, and the ability to work within a group—that are key to adopting hard-to-understand technology. 

Think of it this way: You could explain the intricacies of how your AI-powered platform works, its various features and the percentage point benefits it’ll provide—but if employees don’t have the ability or chance to envision how it’ll fit into their existing workdays, they’ll likely resist or outright ignore implementation. 

By giving your employees a chance to improve their ability to tackle problems, make decisions, and communicate with others, you’re improving their ability to adjust to change. One MIT Sloan study found that one 12-month soft-skills training program in an Indian garment factory led to increases in communication, complex task completion, and overall productivity. Making your workforce more adaptable to change now will make change easier later.

How you introduce change impacts adoption, too. In his seminal 1988 paper “Organizational Culture,” business psychologist Edgar Schein put forth the theory that workplace culture is built from the ground up, not the top down. Instead of presenting automation as a mandate, you’ll see more success positioning it as an opt-in feature that small groups of employees can beta-test. (Who doesn’t love to beta test?) This serves a dual-purpose of making people feel like they have personal agency in large-scale change, and also provide valuable insight into how the various parts of your company can adopt new technologies.

Finally, it’s worth considering how you present the ultimate goal of all this change. Boosts to productivity are nice to think about—we all love to watch the numbers go up—but it’s hard for employees to see how that directly benefits them outside of making their bosses happy. Augmenting your workforce should make their lives easier, so set goals to reflect that. 

You know what makes most people happy? Spending less time at work. Think about gauging the success of the AI in your workplace by measuring work hours. Celebrate when it goes down. “Great job everyone,” you could say. “We reduced our average workday by 1 hour and 27 minutes. Now, how can we make the workday even more efficient?”

What do you think?

Share your thoughts online with #Work2035

Don’t just take our word for it…

Is your mind racing with this bold future in which you no longer have to juggle meetings and timesheets? Here are a few things to read to “augment” your understanding of how AI is going to shape the future of work.