Do not ignore automation anxiety

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We're all grappling with preparing for a future that few can predict. But that’s not a reason to do nothing

We are living through a fundamental transformation in the way we work. Automation and machines have the ability to replace human tasks, change the skills in demand from employers, and completely reshape the jobs market. Against this backdrop it’s not surprising that questions about how technology will affect the world of work are front of mind for both employers and employees.

We are all grappling with preparing for a future that few can predict or define. But that’s not a reason to do nothing. In the age of the machine getting the human element right will be even more critical.

There is no denying the transformative impact that technology will have on jobs. Our research shows that up to 30% of existing UKjobs could be highly susceptible to automation by the early 2030s. More than a third of people we surveyed as part of our Workforce of the Future report say they are worried about what the future of work holds for them. Two in five believe that technological developments will impede their job prospects, and a similar amount are worried that automation is putting their job at risk.

These fears can’t be ignored and need to be addressed; otherwise anxiety could affect people’s confidence and willingness to innovate. Responsible organisations should start having mature conversations with their staff now to help them understand, prepare and potentially upskill for any impact technology may have on their jobs. The ability to adapt will be key.

At PwC, we are thinking about technology in terms of the tasks it can perform rather than the jobs it could do, and are communicating to our staff on this basis. We are also educating our workforce on emerging technologies and the innovations they can bring, so they can understand the context in which they can be used and the benefits. In most cases new technology is helping our people to do certain tasks – such as analysing data or large reports – faster and with more accuracy. This is freeing up time for them to focus on the more creative or problem-solving aspects of their role, thus enhancing their experience at work.

Organisations have a responsibility to educate their workforce that new technology doesn’t necessarily mean job losses. There is a big difference between technology augmenting someone’s job and replacing it.

So how can businesses build a people strategy that’s fit for a very different future? At PwC we believe there are six things that business leaders need to consider:

1. Act now. Change is already happening and accelerating.

2. No regrets and make some bets. Businesses need to recognise and plan for multiple evolving scenarios.

3. Make a bigger leap. Radical changes may be required – don’t be constrained by your starting point.

4. Own the automation debate. Artificial intelligence will affect every level of business – this is an agenda that goes beyond HR and IT, so all business leaders must have an understanding of the changing technology landscape.

5. Protect people not jobs. Organisations can’t protect jobs made redundant by technology, but they have a fundamental responsibility to their people. They need to nurture agility, adaptability and re-skilling.

6. Build a clear narrative. A third of workers are anxious about the impact of automation on their jobs, and anxiety can affect confidence. Start to have a mature conversation about the future.

Technology is already changing how people work and employees will increasingly want to know what it means for their jobs. Those businesses that get on the front foot and start having mature conversations with their employees, even if they don’t yet know all of the answers, will gain their trust and engagement and ultimately reap the rewards.

It’s impossible to predict exactly what skills will be needed even five years from now, but businesses need to start helping their workers to be able to adapt now in order to navigate the changes ahead.

Laura Hinton is chief people officer at PwC

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