Robot Colleagues and the Workforce of the Future


Once just characters in science-fiction movies, robots at work are rapidly becoming a reality. However, American workers are not all that sure about how they can come to grips with this new world of work, says Frank Connolly, director of research, MindEdge/Skye Learning.

Not too long ago, workplace robots were just characters in science-fiction movies – think Blade Runner and WALL-E, to name just a couple. But these days, reality is finally catching up to Hollywood. Workplace automation is increasing at an exponential rate, and American workers are not all that sure about how they can come to grips with this brave new world of work.

According to the third annual Future of Work survey by MindEdge/Skye Learning, 32% of employees report that advanced automation – including robot workers, artificial intelligence (AI), and analytics – has been put in their workplace in the past year alone. But as far-reaching as this digital transformation has extended, there is no consensus about how this new standard will affect workers.

More than three-quarters (76%) of employees at newly automated workplaces feel that the new automation has made their jobs more accessible, and almost as many (69%) say that advanced technology has improved workplace morale. 55% do not agree with the affirmation that robots are better workers than humans, and a full 57% agree that robots and advanced automation are “bad for American workers.”

These sharply conflicting attitudes suggest that American workers have not yet fully grasped the scope and implications of the ongoing automation revolution. However, they are already open to one idea that will be essential in preparing for “RobomageddonOpens a new window ”: continuous learning to upgrade their career skills. Indeed, a vast majority of the workforce (88%) already believe that gaining consistent, relevant industry skills – “upskilling” – is critical to future-proofing their careers.

Learn More: Why AI-skilled Workforce Is Your Best Investment: AccentureOpens a new window

3 Strategies to Prepare Your Workforce for Robot Colleagues

In this time of flux, these three strategies can ensure that every member of the workforce will be ready for robot colleagues – whether automation is already a reality or still just a distant possibility.

1. Upskilling is essential

As technology continues to transform the U.S. workforce, employers and employees have no choice but to prepare for it. This makes navigating the impact of robotics, automation, and AI a modern pillar of business operations. While this is an experiential process that will take time for business leaders and employees to understand, departments like HR can take steps now that will prepare organizations to add robot entities into employee systems.

Continuous learning, a term that envisions education as a lifetime opportunity and not merely a four-year commitment, is a strategy that organizations cannot afford to ignore. Implementing an open, steady stream of communication about continuous learning in the workforce helps workers not just to keep up with, but remain ahead of, the automation revolution. Upskilling through constant learning is a proven way to reinforce employee confidenceOpens a new window and engagement in the face of robots and AI. And there are effective ways to take advantage of it – today.

2. Focus on the right skills

When it comes to upskilling, there are myriad options available, including both hard and soft skills. Workers must focus on the skills that will give them a competitive advantage in the workforce. Our survey found the most in-demand skills among American employees:

  • 28% of employees say computer programming and web design is one of their top three most valuable skills
  • 26% of employees feel creative thinking skill is important
  • 26% of employees say complex problem-solving ability is useful for them
  • 25% of employees prefer critical thinking as the most crucial skill

Workers also express clear preferences about how and where they want to participate in continuous learning programs. According to survey respondents, these are the most effective means of providing skills training:

  • 68% of employees say on-site training programs is one of the two most effective types of training
  • 50% say online training programs are effective

Findings also indicate that workers are less enthusiastic about off-site training (28%) and outside conferences, expos, or seminars (19%).

Learn More: Using Talent Management Technology to Enhance Soft SkillsOpens a new window

3. Don’t do it alone

No matter which skills workers want to sharpen and how they prefer to do it, workers don’t want to feel like they are alone. When it comes to upskilling, only 21% say that employees should be responsible for upgrading their skills. In comparison, a substantial proportion (34%) say that this responsibility should fall mainly on employers. Most agree (42%), however, that employers and employees should share the responsibility.

A shared commitment to upskilling the workforce underscores the importance of continuous learning for both employers and employees: what’s right for employees is usually good for employers, and vice versa. By viewing continuous learning as a shared responsibility, workers and employers can hold each other accountable to balance an effective upskilling strategy.

So, What’s the Bottom Line?

On the one hand, advanced automation is here to stay, and it will only grow more prevalent with each passing year. On the other hand, there’s a clear path for workers to expand their skill sets and future-proof their careers through continuous learning. Workers who are quick to embrace upskilling and constant learning will enjoy a significant competitive advantage over those who don’t. And they will be able to make a more seamless transition from the former world of science-fiction robots to the new reality of robot co-workers and AI decision-making.

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