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Employees in the age of robots and AI: More relevant, not less

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/gpointstudio)

Digitisation is disrupting industries around the globe. This disruption comes in many shapes: robotic process automation, virtual assistants, AI-based decision making, autonomous vehicles, and much more. These trends cause many employees to worry: will I still be relevant in, say, 2050? The answer is: yes – given the right mind set, evolving skills, and a work environment that allows for easy upskilling.

At first glance, the future relevance of human work seems impossible to predict, as 2050 is a long 30 years from now. Three decades ago, the internet as we know it today did not even exist. As Danish physicist Niels Bohr famously put it: "Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future." Actually, prediction is getting increasingly difficult, because today progress is happening ever faster: innovation cycles grow shorter, while the adoption curves of new technologies grow steeper. With this caveat, there are reasons to believe that well-skilled, motivated employees will be more relevant to future business success than ever before.

In the coming years, a lot of manual, repetitive work will be automated and/or be done by robots. Some more demanding jobs will also be lost to digitisation, as decisions are handed over to artificial intelligence (AI). According to the OECD, nearly half of current jobs will be transformed by automation: researchers predict that 14 per cent of jobs will be fully automated, and that an additional 32 per cent of jobs will be radically transformed by technological progress.

However, this is only half the story: on the upside, new technology keeps creating new jobs, and even whole new job categories. The OECD also states that 40 per cent of the jobs created between 2005 and 2016 in fact were created in digitally-intensive industries! Furthermore, researchers agree that by 2030 we will have many jobs that do not even exist yet.

Improving the employee experience

Some futurists may envision a future of fully-automated factories, with robots supplanting all human workers, or fully-digitised business environments, with virtual assistants replacing human staff. But a more realistic scenario is one of humans and their robotic or virtual colleagues working side by side. The reason: digitisation and technology enable work to "move up the food chain", automating task-oriented work while creating new, higher-skilled jobs. So, while we can't tell exactly what work in the year 2050 will look like, we know one thing for sure: it will be important to continually acquire new skills, and to never stop learning. Far from being our enemy, AI is much more likely to be a much-needed companion, especially in the world of work.

Machine learning too has fast been on the rise, helping companies accelerate processes and leverage their data. Now, enterprises are looking for tools that use machine learning to improve employee experience, surfacing important information from complex systems without requiring employees to waste time searching for metrics or generating time-consuming dashboards. For example, a digital experience solution might use machine learning to monitor for shifts in data from business applications and notify a marketing manager when website traffic registers an atypical increase or decrease. Similarly, the system can monitor how a manager typically responses to expense requests under £100 and suggest an automated task.

This is why business leaders should focus on three things: first, they need to look for new talents that are not only qualified for the job at hand, but are also open-minded about expanding their skill-set. Second, they should encourage their workforce to continually engage in upskilling activities – not just at the last minute when their jobs seem in danger. And finally, they should keep in mind that with digitisation moving forward like an unstoppable wave, the concept of work has radically changed: work is no longer a place, but rather a dynamic activity engaged in across temporal and spatial boundaries. Leaders should equip their workforce with intelligent technologies that support them in intuitively accessing to all the information they need to stay up to date. Modern digital work environments also improve collaboration tools that facilitate interactive on-the-job training and provide an environment for flexible online learning wherever and whenever the employee finds the time.

Fundamental transition

Across all industries, the business world will continue to experience a fundamental transition, and the speed of innovation will keep increasing. The role of employees will change in this transition, but that does not mean that the workforce will be less essential. Even if future employees will be assisted by smart devices, robots, virtual assistants, and who knows, one day maybe even autonomous holograms: for the foreseeable future, employees will remain the most important link between a company and their products, services, and customers. This means that a diverse, enthusiastic, and creative workforce will remain the decisive factor for business success. The best strategy for enterprises is – and continues to be – to invest in their employees.

Darren Fields, Vice President UK & Ireland, Citrix