Business leaders and economists alike have been frustrated with stagnant labor productivity over the past 15 years, even as companies invested in business process automation (BPA) and AI tools that promised to revolutionize work.
The problem may be that the focus was too much on the promise of the technology, and not enough on what the technology can do for workers.
A recent survey of more than 6,000 knowledge workers from around the world indicates that BPA does indeed boost productivity. However, these technologies are most effective when employers also invest in training and employee engagement. Outcomes include greater output as well as more satisfied and creative employees.
The survey included employees in a broad range of industries, based in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, Singapore, the U.K. and the U.S.
About seven out of 10 respondents report that workplace automation boosts their productivity. They also said that automation simplifies work processes, enhances efficiency, and reduces repetitive tasks, according to the research published by ServiceNow in Workflow Quarterly and reported by IT strategy scholar Thomas Davenport.
In fact, 74% of employees in the most automated companies say automation improves job satisfaction, compared to 53% in highly manual companies.
Employees in more automated companies reported about 20% greater productivity from the technology introduced in their organizations. These companies asked employees in advance what tools would help them perform better. They also trained employees on how to use the systems most effectively and explained how work processes would change.
Overall, 47% of employees who rated the automation training they received as “excellent” say it is “very easy” to adapt to automated work processes, versus only 8% who say their employer did a poor job of training. Yet, 72% of all workers polled want to learn or improve a digital skill.
“All the building blocks for broad automation platforms are available,” said ServiceNow CIO Chris Bedi, in an interview with Davenport. “The trick is how you bring all the elements together, and choose the right mode of delivery— mobile, chatbots, etc.—to meet employees where they are.”
The results may seem surprising given the common assumption that automation threatens jobs. Yet relatively few of the survey respondents (19%) are worried about losing their jobs to automation. In the most highly-automated companies, more than half of the respondents say automation creates jobs.
Over the next few decades, successful adoption of AI and automation in the workplace could end up boosting global productivity growth by 0.8 to 1.4%, according to research by the McKinsey Global Institute.
While automation helps, productivity will ultimately depend on how people are empowered to work.