One out of every three information workers believes his or her job could be replaced by automation, according to a survey conducted by market research firm Market Cube on behalf of project management (PM) company Smartsheet. Roughly the same portion of respondents said automation would result in layoffs at their respective companies.
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Sixty-five percent of respondents are already using some type of automation in their day-to-day work, and a similar number said their companies are working to automate daily work that hasn't already been automated. Sixty percent of respondents said they think automation will lead to higher country-wide unemployment in knowledge-based work.
The MarketCube results aren't just the anxieties of a workforce's underlying paranoia: Management consulting firm McKinsey & Company released a report that suggests half of today's work activities could be replaced by automation from 2035-2055, depending on various factors. The firm's report analyzed 2,000 work activities across 800 occupations and found that almost $2.7 trillion in wages are spent on jobs that could ultimately be automated. PriceWaterhouseCooper (PwC) is even more bullish on automation: Thirty-eight percent of jobs in the US could be replaced by automation within 15 years, according to PwC. The numbers are especially devastating for manufacturing and labor. According to a report from the National Bureau of Economic Research, each new robot added to the workforce equals between 3 and 5.6 lost jobs in the vicinity of the factory where the robot is added and, for each new robot per 1,000 workers, wages would fall between 0.25 and 0.5 percent for the local community.
The potentially devastating impact of automation on knowledge-based work wouldn't represent a first for American industry. According to an article by economist and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professor David H. Autor in 1900, 41 percent of the US workforce was employed in agriculture but, by 2000, the number had decreased to just 2 percent.
"I don't know that I can put my finger on a specific type of job that will be lost," said Gene Farrell, Senior Vice President of Smartsheet . "But I know of companies that have roles that do nothing but consolidate and publish monthly reporting. Certainly, when you can automate those types of activities, [you stand to benefit]."
Farrell cites processes such as update requests and data collection that are done without a particular or specifically designed technology which are ripe for automation. "Today, many companies use emails to get things approved. Things get lost. There's no system to track the emails. This requires whoever initiates the request to follow up and spend a lot of time tracking to get their approval request done...We believe automation is going to enable today's workers to focus on more high-value work."
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Image via: Smartsheet
The Brighter Side of Automation?
In his paper, Autor acknowledges that automation doesn't always necessarily result in lost jobs. "Tasks that cannot be substituted by automation are generally complemented by it," he writes, citing a 2015 study by James Bessen. Bessen's example draws on the increase of bank teller jobs during the introduction of ATM machines in the 1970s. Autor writes: "ATMs were introduced in the 1970s, and their numbers in the US economy quadrupled from approximately 100,000 to 400,000 between 1995 and 2010. One might naturally assume that these machines had all but eliminated bank tellers in that interval. But US bank teller employment actually rose modestly from 500,000 to approximately 550,000 over the 30-year period from 1980 to 2010 (although, given the growth in the labor force in this time interval, these numbers do imply that bank tellers declined as a share of overall US employment)."
MarketCube's research indicates that knowledge workers are optimistic their industry could benefit from similar results. Sixty-nine percent of respondents said that reducing time wasted on repetitive work is the biggest opportunity for positive automation in their respective industry. Almost 60 percent said they could save six or more hours a week if the repetitive aspects of their jobs were automated. Interestingly, 78 percent said they would use the time saved to focus more on the interesting and rewarding aspects of their job—compared to just 33 percent who said they worried that automation would kill their jobs entirely. The numbers indicate that the prospect of automation inspires a bit more optimism than pessimism among knowledge workers.
Image via: Smartsheet
"When [respondents are] asked if they'll be impacted [by automation], they are less concerned," said Farrell. "People can't actually see automation replacing their work but they do worry about it. The real power of automation is that everybody sees the pace of work accelerating. So many companies are investing to improve the productivity of their teams. Most knowledge workers are inundated with communication and collaboration tools that they spend a lot of energy on communication and not on getting things done."
Farrell said he thinks automation can not only make workers more productive, but it can actually help workers spend fewer hours at the office while not impacting a company's bottom line. "People are working more hours than ever before," he said. "Automation may actually give people more flexibility than ever."
Let's just hope "flexibility" isn't a polite way of saying "unemployment."
The survey was conducted in June of 2017 and features responses from approximately 1,000 information workers in the US.