How APAC companies can get their employees on board with RPA

RPA is growing in the APAC region but managers must ensure they achieve a strong working relationship with the digital workforce

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Adam Muspratt

The RPA market in APAC will be worth $2.8bn by 2021, according to a report by PWC, which would represent growth of 203 per cent from 2017 and marks out the region as the fastest growing market for the technology. Despite this growth, however, there remain lingering fears of RPA technology prevalent among APAC companies. Most notably among these fears are the impact it will have on employees and the subsequent challenge of selling RPA to employees affected by it. In a study by Protiviti, 72 per cent of APAC respondents stated the ability to manage employees was a major challenge – the most of any surveyed region.

Getting on board as APAC grows

In order for RPA to succeed, employees have to be positive of the change, retrained and kept motivated, otherwise it will only serve to disrupt existing company structure, says Danilo McGarry, Director of Automation at UnitedHealth Group.

Considering RPA's growth in APAC and ahead of our BPM & RPA APAC live event on November 19–20, 2019, we break down why RPA is not replacing human jobs, and offer insight into how managers can communicate the benefits of the technology to improve employee buy-in. This is a theme we will return to in our online event.

RPA is distinguished from human workers, has different skill sets and is not the competition

A major discussion of the technology world is to what extent human jobs will be affected by automation and RPA. Critics argue that automation will take away human jobs and increase unemployment. These predictions are wide of the mark and do not take the whole picture into account. RPA should be treated as digital workers with different skill sets when compared to humans. Due to the different skills that can be employed, RPA will not replace human workers, but work alongside them.

RPA is limited in respect to its ability to only perform the same task repeatedly and only do what it has been programmed to. This makes it suited for taking over clerical and administrative tasks that are time consuming and repetitive, such as data manipulation, transaction processing and communicating with other software systems, of which are common processes in sectors such as insurance, finance and procurement.

As a result, human workers are freed from low-value, repetitive work and can reorient themselves toward delivering complex tasks that leverage their human skill and intelligence. The result is improved efficiency and morale, according to a survey by NICE in which employees from the US and UK were asked how RPA will help them in their roles. Some 38 per cent of respondents stated that the reduction of errors is the biggest benefit of RPA. In contrast, improving the customer experience, which often requires more human input and intelligence, received the lowest response at 17 per cent.

Due to lower FTE when RPA is implemented, managers and employees alike will be more cognizant of the need to focus on delivering innovation to their customers. According to Deloitte, increased job satisfaction is highly likely when RPA is employed correctly alongside human workers. This is an important factor to consider in roles where more than 20 hours a week are typically spent on average on clerical tasks. It is reasonable to suggest that employees will prefer to spend this time on more stimulating work that adds value to the company.

Besides removing tasks with inevitable human error such as data entry, the focus on richer interactions and fewer opportunities to make data input mistakes are the type of opportunities workers will appreciate, offering an overall positive impact on employee satisfaction.

It is important to make this distinction, and by putting a human face on RPA, you will better be able to get your employees on board. In the same way that automotive manufacturing has streamlined the production of cars on an assembly line, RPA will take over clerical office functions that do not add value to the business. It is not about taking employees away from their roles, but ensuring that their time is spent more effectively.

Adam Johnston, Managing Director at auditing and process consultancy Protiviti Hong Kong, says: “To assuage employee fears, organizations are taking key steps by being transparent about their plans for RPA use, working closely with employees to understand and ease their concerns, and stressing the time saved on mundane, repetitive work.” This brings us to the second aspect of this debate. RPA will not work without human support and, as a result, a new batch of RPA-centric roles will emerge.

RPA cannot function without humans, so it will create new learning opportunities, scope for reorientation and entirely new positions in robot training, solutions architecture and project management. 

Deloitte found that automation creates more jobs than it destroys, and it will be no different with RPA. RPA stakeholders are far more interested in how the technology can help businesses grow by redeploying workers to different roles, not replacing them directly. At our recent RPA Live event, one stakeholder was adamant that minimizing cost was not the main priority.

"Anything we’re doing needs to be creating value", says Angela Mangiapane, President at confectionary and pet food giants Mars Global Services. "Most businesses are using automation to augment skill, scale operations and increase speed."

Managers need to engage the workforce with robots as a tool to increase productivity. The fact is that RPA tools cannot solve every problem, as they can only mimic human inputs and processes, and this is what should be broadcast to employees. In reality, RPA needs iterative tuning and hands-on employees to structure data and define how to handle all the steps involved with automation. There will be a demand for individuals with these skills, with ISG predicting that enterprises are likely reimagine their talent acquisition and retention strategies for RPA skills throughout 2020.

Employees should not see RPA as a threat

Employees who approach RPA with the right attitude will find it offers more opportunities than threats: it is the employees that know where the bottlenecks and redundant process occur, which provides a great opportunity to get them on board from the get go and cultivate enthusiasm around the change.

While some activities, such as data entry, may be completely displaced more opportunities will be created to which employees can be redeployed to. Specialist and management roles within the RPA domain will become increasingly desirable, as will the ability to make sense of RPA data to understand and process information. Jobs that will be created include automation analysts, RPA developers, RPA testers and bot orchestrators.

Management should remember that including employees in these discussions and providing avenues for them to self-identify roles will help formalize a strategy to prepare for RPA, ensuring that the message of positivity is maintained.

RPA presents APAC with a huge opportunity to become world leaders in RPA implementation, if they can catch up. History tells us that the region which revolutionized industry in the 20th century with lean six sigma should not be underestimated when it comes to process implementation.