As the Covid-19 crisis stretched into the summer, consulting firm McKinsey & Company surveyed nearly 900 business leaders about their digital transformation efforts. Those leaders said that the pandemic sped up the transformation of many of their internal operations by up to four years.
If this and other surveys like it (not to mention the conversations our sales teams have had throughout this pandemic) are any indications, much of that transformation has been a surge in automation, either from companies beginning programs or, more likely, expanding programs already in place.
This shift toward automation is expected to continue through 2021, and we predict several related trends:
- Companies will bring more IP and data operations back in-house because they now are able to do so more cost-effectively.
- Automation will encourage better and more personal customer relationships and interactions as employees regain bandwidth to focus more on human connections.
- Automation will redefine management — especially in operations — to focus less on success measured by team size and more on team output.
- In a world that has suddenly become heavily dependent on remote workforces, companies will need to be more intentional about culture and social capital than ever.
Automation can enable in-house operations and better service
As automation surges, we are meeting with companies motivated to pull outsourced processes and data back in-house. These businesses are focusing more on where things are being executed, and they are adopting automation to help — not only by optimizing these processes but also by reducing the risk of human error (particularly from third-party resources, which intrinsically are harder to control).
Many firms also recognize that customer expectations and needs are rapidly changing in light of new technology, and they are implementing automation initiatives aimed at improving customer engagement. More customer interactions are being supplemented with highly automated approaches instead of cumbersome manual touchpoints.
Our customers and organizations investing in similar tools are also taking advantage of automation to remove the repetitive, time-consuming tasks that steal so much of their employees’ time. That’s freeing them up to interact more with customers and provide personal, direct engagements — a change that would especially benefit the banking, financial services and insurance sector.
Automation is redefining management
As automation increases, many worry that the adoption of this technology will cut jobs significantly while unemployment is already a concern. According to a report from the World Economic Forum, which draws from surveys of 300 major global companies, increases in automation would make some jobs redundant, but it could also create 97 million jobs worldwide. In fact, we’re already seeing companies create or evolve new roles rather than cut valuable talent, especially in health care and banking/financial services.
Something else we’ve learned from customers across industries is that many business leaders and rank-and-file employees are eager to automate. They are delighted to see tedious tasks being done more efficiently, allowing them to focus on higher-value initiatives. Those who are the most hesitant have been certain middle managers, as their identity and success metrics often rely on how many people they supervise.
This means champions of automation need to help companies transform their definitions of management and success. Instead of focusing on personnel headcounts, businesses should redefine teams to include not just actual employees but also the bots these teams use. Also, middle managers need to be encouraged to focus more on overall productivity, not just team size.
Culture among remote workforce must be intentional
Remote work is fast becoming an integral part of the “new normal” business model emerging from the pandemic, according to Gartner, Inc. This means organizations must make the time, effort and investment for it to succeed.
This goes beyond increased employee training; company culture must also evolve. As businesses proceed with more remote work staffing, their approach to company culture will have to be intentional and strategic to keep employee satisfaction and engagement high. The organic development of culture can be exceedingly difficult in a remote-first model, but dedication to its development and buy-in from leadership is a great place to start.
Speaking from personal experience, creating culture is important to us. We believe it’s as important to driving business outcomes as product plans or sales strategy. When we pivoted in March 2020 to all-remote work, we recognized that — now more than ever — culture needed to stay a high priority.
For example, in order to demonstrate our commitment to our employees and help maintain our relationships companywide, we created the WorkFusion Unity Fund that provides no-strings-attached, short-term financial support for employees enduring hardship as a result of the pandemic. We also have a broader initiative that helps us create and maintain “social capital” and colleague relationships in this remote environment and going forward. Activities have included holiday-themed photo contests, online social hours, team-building games, surprise “just because” gifts and limited in-person outdoor gatherings in line with local restrictions.
Automation is changing businesses — and never more than during the tumult that was 2020. We are seeing this especially in regulated industries such as banking, financial services and insurance. Adjusting and transforming operations became a necessity, and adopting or expanding automation in reaction produces inevitable consequences. Automation is affecting the nature of work and management principles at the same time that global conditions and workforce restructuring are impacting overall company culture. These paradigms are all shifting, and automation itself is now changing alongside.
Robotic process automation (RPA) is great for removing human error from repetitive tasks. With the addition of machine learning to create intelligent automation, it becomes transformative. Processes don’t just go faster; they are improved. Tasks aren’t just completed more accurately; people are freed to work more creatively.
As more enterprises worldwide continue to adjust to new realities, transform their operations and liberate their teams, we expect increasingly powerful automation to stay at the forefront through 2021 and beyond.
This article originally appeared on Forbes.com.