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The bots are coming! Robotic process automation (RPA) reduces operational costs, increases efficiency, and ensures future company competitiveness. But where the introduction of RPA might sound like sweet music to the ears of business leaders and CIOs, it may sound quite different to employees – and can even cause considerable anxiety and resistance. To dissuade panic around RPA implementation, find out why communication plays a key role when you want to transform your business. 

Transformation accelerated: The post-pandemic need for RPA 

Digital-first companies know that robotic process automation isn’t “new,” but the buzz about RPA has accelerated over the past few years. COVID-19 brought along new challenges, specifically when discussing the shift to remote work and sick leave. All these effects put digital transformation into hyper-scaling mode and established automation as its key driver

In response to the pandemic, 80% of companies plan to accelerate the digitalization of work processes, and 50% aim to do so by automating tasks. Cutting costs, speeding up processes, and reducing errors – the advantages of RPA are undeniable. The automated enterprise equals a resilient and future-proof organization. So despite the economic recession, CEOs and CIOs invested heavily in RPA software during 2020 and 2021. 

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Will bots threaten my job? The long tradition of automation fear 

Process automation will do good for businesses, but what happens to the human employees as the bots move in? For the human workforce, RPA raises the existential fear of job loss. More than 60% of employees are worried that automation is putting jobs at risk, and 39% think their job will be replaced by tech within the next five years. 

Automation anxiety flares up with each milestone toward modern industrial evolution. Think about the steam-powered looms of the 18th century. Look at the assembly line production and electrification of the 19th century. Remember the industrial robots and computerization of the 20th century? 

Every disruptive innovation led to veritable fear of technical unemployment. And this fear regularly provoked significant resistance among the working class. The same effect took place when Klaus Schwab announced the Fourth Industrial Revolution at the World Economic Forum in 2016. His vision of a smart factory embedding software robots, AI and machine learning raised deep-rooted fears again. Beyond that, our common negative perception of robots is fed by popular literature and movies. 

“Robots are seen as unintelligible intelligent machines, heralding a dark dystopian near future, first in our homes and then in our workplaces.” – Deloitte Insights: Automation with Intelligence, 2020 

So it shouldn’t be seen as a surprise that resistance to RPA is inevitable.

Successful change management means people first, bots second 

Resistance to change is one of the top barriers to implement and scale robotic process automation. That means simply buying and installing RPA software won’t pave the way to the automated enterprise. Deloitte notes that “transformation isn’t only about new technologies; it is also about human capital”. Unlocking the full value of automation takes a human-centered and holistic approach, i.e. putting people in the first place and engaging employees from the very start. 

So how do we really connect with people? By talking to them. Communication is the key to “win over the skeptics”. And that doesn’t mean simply sending out a company-wide mass email about the impending introduction of RPA. Successful communication is not an autocratic, unidirectional approach. It’s an ongoing dialogue using various channels, addressing different stakeholders. 

7 rules to follow when communicating the need for RPA 

Want to successfully and sustainably roll out RPA throughout your company? Here are some essential communication tips that center on people, not bots. 

1. Communicate 

Beware of going mute on an important issue. You might come across as withholding information. Don’t hatch your automation plans in a closed C-level lab while keeping your employees in the dark. People will interpret silence as bad news. Any lack of reliable information will create negative or false assumptions, which can create more friction toward change.  

2. Be honest 

Take your employees’ concerns seriously, and address them openly and directly. Inform them that yes, automation will significantly transform workplaces. Jobs that require manual or basic cognitive skills will decline about 15% by 2030. If you pretend no major changes will come from introducing RPA, you will lose your employees’ trust and doom further communication initiatives. 

Craig Nelson notes: “RPA advocates who fail to define the new organizational structure and its likely impact on people before they introduce RPA will find resistance to be significant.”

Address anxieties and take the chance to relieve your workforce of them. Of course the demand for physical labor continues decreasing with automation. Despite this, it will continue to represent the largest category of demanded activities on the labor market in the future. Depending on the industry, manually automating activities may not even be possible, e.g. in the healthcare or educational sector. 

In every industry, automation will dramatically reduce the need for tasks that require simple cognitive skills: “Basic data input and processing skills will be particularly affected by automation … as machines increasingly take over straightforward data input tasks.”

3. Focus on human skills 

Every disruptive crisis also holds great opportunities that should be outlined and emphasized. Even things like simple administrative tasks are automated more often. At the same time, the demand for qualified activities that require higher cognitive skills is growing. These are the skills that are genuinely for humans. 

Take creative and critical thinking or deliberative decisions based on complex issues, for example. Exploring new ways to think outside of the box. Creating innovation. In short, companies that embrace automation will foster a working environment where people won’t become bored from monotony. Instead, they’ll be able to develop their full potential and experience a more rewarding working life.

4. Mind your language 

Focusing only on the business benefits of RPA implementation, such as process and cost efficiencies – can be unsettling to your workforce – as can the vision of an end-to-end automated enterprise conquered by a faceless digital workforce.

Eliminating the human factor is not the point of automation. Therefore, don’t communicate the topic of RPA in a way that conjures up such a dystopian future. Don’t portray RPA bots as soulless machines that replace humans at work. Refrain from standard shutter-stocks of “robots” that portray unsympathetic terminators. Talk in a positive and personal style (name them!) about helpful co-bots that simplify daily work and expand the capacities of your employees – not a threat to be concerned about.

5. Provide examples 

Pure theory remains abstract and intangible. Do you want your employees to really grasp and embrace RPA? Show them a practical example from their day-to-day work. RPA bots can do so much. They update personnel files, check invoices, manage passwords, and more. RPA bots handle standard requests, record meter readings, document patient data – the list goes on. 

Now it’s up to you to find a convincing business case. Depict a frequent and at the same time tedious activity from your real-life business. Automate it, then present it as a ready-made demo. This way, your employees can actually see how they will benefit from RPA. You’ll notice how quickly they begin embracing the technology and identifying what processes can be automated in their own workforce. 

6. Empower people 

Building bots is not a mystery. Bring RPA out of the IT “ivory tower” straight into the business departments. Training can effectively reduce fear of contact and subsequently engage your employees with the new technology. 

As a low-code approach, RPA generally doesn’t require in-depth programming knowledge. Automation processes are modeled simply through dragging and dropping pre-built activity bricks to form a graphical RPA workflow. Digital-savvy employees in the business units should be offered workshops to become citizen developers; as a citizen developer, they can independently automate simple business processes. These experiences of success reinforce the sense of self-efficacy, allowing employees to feel that they have control over the bots – not the other way round.

7. Encourage development 

Yes, automation cuts out previous routine activities. But it also frees time and opens up space for ongoing individual education. What about actually acquiring more expertise in RPA as a business function? This ranges from identifying automatable processes to building bots or maintaining automation initiatives. 

Others may want to improve their current skills and earn extra qualifications for a promotion. Some even might consider discovering new areas of responsibility in other departments and teams. Remind your employees that bots won’t destroy their jobs; rather, they’ll transform their way of work. This can be a driver for lifelong learning and future development.

RPA can reduce boredom and boost human potential 

It’s as simple as that. The transformation to an automated company can only succeed in collaboration with the people working in it. When designing your RPA strategy, always put people at its heart and communication at the top of its agenda. You’ll be able to excite your employees about the new technology and the opportunities it offers.