Automation in the workplace, including the use of artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics, is expected to surge in the next three years, according to a survey by Willis Towers Watson, a leading global advisory, broking and solutions company. However, the survey revealed very few companies and HR functions are fully prepared to address the organisational change requirements related to automation as well as less reliance on full-time employees and greater reliance on contingent talent.
The Global Future of Work Survey found that companies expect automation will account for on average 22% of work being done in the next three years. That compares with 12% of work companies say is being done using AI and robotics today, and just 7% three years ago.
“UK companies clearly see work automation gaining momentum, with little signs of slowing down anytime soon,” said George Zarkadakis, Digital Lead for Willis Towers Watson’s Talent and Rewards practice. “The implications for HR and talent strategies are immediate. On one hand, the growing use of AI, robotics, free agent workers, contractors, consultants and part-time employees brings with it HR challenges that only few organisations are prepared to tackle. On the other hand, many companies recognise the need for breakthrough and innovative approaches — and are reinventing work and how talent and skills combine.”
Indeed, according to the survey, less than 7% say their HR functions are fully prepared for the changing requirements of digitalisation, although on average, fewer than a third are somewhat prepared and have already taken some action to prepare for the future. For example, 31% of companies have taken steps to address talent deficits through workforce planning and actions while 32% of companies have taken action to identify the emerging skills required for their business; 29% have taken action to match talent to the new work requirements, and 27% have taken action to enable careers based on a more agile and flattened organisation structure.
Additionally, many respondents are either planning to take action this year or considering measures to prepare for the future, such as deconstructing jobs and identifying which tasks can be automated (50%) and identifying reskilling pathways for talent whose work is being subsumed by automation (48%). Employers are also taking action to identify “skill and will” gaps as automation changes skill premiums (50%), and reconfigure total rewards and benefits to fit a radically different workforce (53%).
In a reminder of the complexities associated with automation, the survey discovered some interesting dichotomies. For example, the percentage of employers automating work and seeing an increase in skill requirements is expected to rise sharply from 27% currently to 45% in the next three years. Conversely, over a third (42%) expect to apply automation and redesign jobs to lower skill requirements over the next three years. The impact of automation on the utilisation of non-employee talent is also noteworthy. While 19% of respondents say automation currently enables or requires them to use more non-employee talent, such as free agents or contractors, 50% expect that to be the case in the next three years. Almost half of employers (49%) believe they will require fewer employees in the next three years as a result of automation compared with 27% of organisations that say that is true today.
“Most companies believe automation will have a significant impact on leaders and managers in the next three years,” said George Zarkadakis. This is underscored by the percentage of companies that say automation will change how managers educate workers on the impact of automation on their jobs in the next three years (32% this year versus 61% in 2020). Additionally, almost two-thirds (63%) say leaders will need to think differently about the requirements and skills for successors and succession management as a result of automation.
“Management and leadership development will be a critical issue for companies of all sizes over the next three years. We know strong leadership is a key driver of employee engagement and retention. But in the face of rapidly changing work automation, companies will need to develop leaders and managers who can orchestrate a radically different work ecosystem while keeping all of the talent in their workplaces fully engaged,” said George Zarkadakis.