2020, the year of COVID-19 and automation

2020, the year of COVID-19 and automation

In an age where rapid change is the norm, automation has grown exponentially — and in many different directions. From self-driving cars to AI-driven customer service chatbots, there seems to be no end to the ways automation technology can be manifested in the modern world. Now, as Covid-19 alters the nature of business and work even more rapidly than before, we explore whether more people are set to feel the impact of automation. 

The culmination of a long-term trend?

Robots building cars inside a factory

While automation increases productivity and makes lives easier and better for millions of workers, there is a darker side — one which has always been very much in the spotlight: it is also taking away jobs from humans in almost all sectors

Modern technology has given rise to countless new tools and platforms for high-skilled workers to become more efficient, productive, and creative. But for other workers, technological advances haven’t always translated into improvements that benefit them. A recent study finds that there is a segment of the workforce that is more vulnerable to the downside of technology — automation or displacement by robots — than their high-skilled counterparts. 

Covid-19 has thrust digital transformation into overdrive and shortened the transformation journey timeline into months for companies that had planned a years’-long journey. With the rapid rise of remote work in 2020, how has Covid-19 added to the story of automation? In other words, in the year of Covid, will increased, rapid transformation be accompanied by a rapid rise in automation? Is this the year of double jeopardy: COVID-19 and automation?

Automation before Covid-19

Long before anybody had ever heard of Covid-19, automation existed in a large mosaic of forms. The potential impact does not always mean labor substitution — sometimes, it results in a shift in the nature of work. Some workers may need to change jobs or go for additional training or education to upgrade their skills, which in the end turns out to be very positive for productivity, time management, and optimizing profits. 

Phone-answering systems have already replaced receptionists in many firms, and have been doing so for years. And there is the infamous history of automated machines on the manufacturing production floor that have replaced thousands of factory workers over the last several decades. In more recent years, business process automation has revolutionized the workplace with products like Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software.

One more thing. By the end of 2019, a PwC research showed that Artificial Intelligence would have a huge impact on the GDP of countries like China (with a 26% expected GDP growth) and the United States (with 14% of GDP boost).

Automation and Covid

With the pandemic and the rise of remote work, companies rely even more heavily on software that connects and allows employees to collaborate, communicate, share documents, and more. But does that mean automation is stealing people’s jobs? Not in this case. In this scenario, software is enhancing performance by enabling remote work. They may be stepping up their digitization efforts and in doing so, adopt more products that eventually automate parts of their jobs, however. 

Go back to the CRM software mentioned earlier: a company that may have been slow to transform digitally may have been stuck with outdated, legacy systems that were not able to accommodate CRM. By fast-tracking digital change, the Covid-caused shift to remote work may be indirectly bringing about more automation, as a result. 

So yes, 2020 is the year of Covid, which through a progression of steps outlined above, could turn into the year of automation as well.

Nowhere is this more evident than in IT. IT is one area of business that is reeling from disruption and the explosion of remote work. Security teams seek ways to deploy remote security solutions without having to travel to each remote location. Deploying, configuring, monitoring, and maintaining network security functions is expensive when it requires a member of the security team to be present. Software solutions that offer a dashboard for centralized control are one way to answer the question of how to secure an explosion of remote locations while working with a reduced budget. 

And that is the irony: even as IT teams across the world scrambled to enable a remote workforce in 2020, executives expected to reduce IT spending by 7.3%, according to a Gartner Forecast. As digitization takes off and technological improvements keep rolling forward, other jobs could increasingly become more automated as employers look for ways to survive and thrive in the “new normal”. 

“Job-enhancing” vs. “job-replacing” automation technology

robot building a white car

As we have just seen, automation in high-skilled areas like cybersecurity can be a boon to efficiency and a life-saver for IT employees. For example, automating certain network security tasks frees up IT staff time so they can concentrate on mission-critical tasks that require higher thinking. 

In cases like this, we would say that automation is a “job-enhancing technology”. This is a positive direction for automation, which is what the workforce needs in the uncertain times of Covid-19. Even though 1987 was the year where automation started taking over the workforce and many jobs were lost, the arrival of this new age of progress has also brought great challenges when it comes to employment. According to the International Federation of Robotics, even though the number of jobs eliminated by automation rises, people remain optimistic about its benefits. Among 7,000 workers, 70% said they expect higher-skilled employment thanks to automation.

Automation, income inequality, and solutions for the future

Sadly, those workers that are left behind in this age of new technologies, bear the brunt of automation, and have since the 1980s, according to the authors of a newly-published paper entitled Unpacking Skill Bias: Automation and New Tasks. This contributes to income inequality in the form of lower demand for skills and the resulting lower wages for jobs that can be automated.

Developers, business leaders, and stakeholders have a say in where technology is headed, whether it helps to replace or enhance the jobs of the future. It takes conscientious thought about how we develop software and how we walk towards a true digital transformation, the impact on the people who will use it, and how it becomes integrated into an enterprise and its culture. 2020 may be the year of Covid and it may even be argued that it is the year of automation but there are choices we can all make to create the workplace of the future that benefits everyone.

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