Can You Have Meaningful Work In The Age of Automation?

human augmentation

So far, I have written about what meaningful work is, its history, how it relates to money, what kind of leaders we need to make meaningful work possible, different ways to approach work, how to recraft your job to make it more meaningful, and the downsides of specialization, among other topics.

As I mentioned in my earlier articles, what got me interested in studying meaningful work is automation. I am using automation in a broad sense of the word to encompass the integration of technology, robots, and AI, as well as moving into the world where the backbone of our systems is blockchain. The question becomes: how do we take the soft skills we have been discussing and apply them to the future of work that looks vastly different from what we have ever experienced? I will first look at Robotic Process Automation (RPA), the catalyst for my research.

Not one day goes by without us hearing about the transition from an analog world with its tactile physical experiences to a digital society. Even though many organizations had been undergoing the digital transformation for years before the COVID-19 pandemic, this crisis has accelerated the transition and made it more imperative.

At the foundation of all digital transformation is automation. RPA is simply one type of automation. It is designed to automate processes that are repetitive, mundane, and manual by creating bots and programming them to imitate the keystrokes a human makes when completing a task.

What is RPA’s connection to meaningful work? It is a significant one, according to Dr. Chris Brauer, Director of Innovation in the Institute of Management Studies at Goldsmiths, University of London, who conducted a study on Augmented Human Enterprise. The study showed that RPA could free up employees to do higher-value tasks, resulting in the work that is more “human,” where employees are happier, more productive, and less likely to leave.

By transferring simple, repetitive tasks and processes to bots, employees can do the work that requires creativity, judgment, intuition, reasoning, and emotional intelligence. They can have time to develop new skills, solve complex problems, and spend more time interacting with customers. In this kind of work environment, humans and machines work together, contributing to higher engagement and work/life balance.

This was and, in many ways, still is the vision for RPA. Has it panned out that way? RPA has received a mixed response from organizations, with some arguing that RPA has not delivered on its promise to save costs. The use cases are still limited, and it is hard to measure the ROI of the RPA initiatives. In April 2019, Horses for Sources, a widely read blog, made a provocative assertion that RPA was dead.

RPA is far from dead. As the COVID-19 pandemic kept spreading and most employees started to work from home, technology, once again, became the front and center of our daily conversations. Some proclaim that RPA can solve tough problems when managing remote workforces, and it can be an integral part of the future of work. RPA is most definitely not dead, because, on May 1, 2020, Bloomberg reported that Microsoft is in talks to acquire Softomotive, one of the oldest RPA companies. Softomotive, based in the U.K., was originally founded in Greece in 2005.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, many organizations were reluctant to pursue RPA projects out of the fear that it was going to cause loss of jobs. The Augmented Human Enterprise study asserted that “the workforce of the future will increasingly work with automation, rather than be replaced by it.” With the havoc caused by the health crisis and the ensuing unemployment, the fear of automation may have to take the back seat as companies would have to rely more on automation in order to survive and overcome the financial difficulties.

While the employment situation seems bleak now, as we look ahead and reimagine the future of work, augmentation of humans and technology will enable employees to reinvent themselves and create more meaningful work.

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