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Employee Engagement in the Augmented Age

Fretting about the security of your job because of the Fourth Industrial Revolution? In our marvelous age of cognitive computing technologies, the good news is that people will perform less boring and repetitive manual tasks. The bad news is that individuals may lose their jobs as a consequence.

The widening knowledge of human displacement by robotic process automation (RPA), machine learning, augmented intelligence, natural language processing, and image-recognition tools is sending shivers across some workplaces. Not just administrative, entry-level, or task-based roles are at risk of being replaced by robots; business professions like accountants, loan officers, and insurance underwriters also are vulnerable.

One cannot blame companies for deploying technologies that make their organizations and operations more efficient and competitive, executing work at much greater speed, consistency, and quality. Since the Industrial Age, anytime a new technology is introduced, there are always labor implications. The difference now is the breadth and scope of potential job displacement and wide-scale awareness of its imminence—even if this is many years in the future.

Businesses avow that their investments in cognitive computing will free up people to provide them with more interesting, value-added work. There is much truth in this. A case in point is Finance, where RPA is being widely deployed to perform account reconciliations and journal entries. Rather than crunch the numbers, accountants are now liberated to make sense of them for strategic decision-making purposes—certainly more interesting work.

While not the dystopian picture that some critics of robotics paint, the truth is that, over time, some jobs will disappear. People know this: According to the Pew Research Center, a majority of Americans (67%) predict that, within 50 years, robots and computers will do much of the work they currently perform.

Since we’re human beings, we like to think the worst won’t happen to us. The Pew survey underscores this quirk of human nature, noting that 80% of the respondents believe their own jobs to be safe. Obviously, there is a disconnect here.

Since my passion is workplace transformation and its impact on human beings, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about a future in which bots of one form or another are ubiquitous in the workplace. How might this affect employee engagement as we move forward?

My work entails helping companies create work experiences that enable all people to find and engage in productive jobs and meaningful careers. If people are worried about retaining their jobs—even many years in the future—how can they possibly perform their roles today with passion and diligence?

To delve further into this subject, I reached out to Jeremy Scrivens, whose life’s work has involved liberating people to be all they can be at work. Jeremy is a respected work futurist and collaboration catalyst. He’s the director of The Emotional Economy At Work augmented again in Western Australia, where he focuses on guiding organizations and teams to create exceptional collaboration capabilities through a highly engaged workforce.

Jeremy is highly tuned in to the emotional qualities of people in their work. “The problem with work today,” he told me, “is that people who have been the operators of processes since the Industrial Age are suddenly dispensable. If people are going to be displaced to some extent by robots in future, why they need to work at all must be reappraised.”

Cognitive computing technology, Jeremy believes, is not just a way to free people from being cogs in a machine—it is also an opportunity for companies to liberate people to make deeper connections, augmenting our abilities to be more fully human at work. It requires businesses to start with a fresh sheet of paper that accepts that certain tools are now available to humans that were not available before. The question then becomes: How can a business reimagine itself to provide meaningful and consequential responsibilities to people for them to make the world a better place?

For one thing, Jeremy advocates that companies replace their current organizational paradigms of flat, hierarchically structured work responsibilities with collaborative engagements in which everyone co-innovates a shared future. This is the work he does in his projects for companies and governments. In all cases, he creates a physical “appreciative inquiry summit” and a virtual “social room.” Both call for bringing together people in open discussions.

I am a huge fan of involving people more directly in these changes by having a say in their reskilling, future roles, and work—something we don’t do enough of today in corporate America. As Jeremy explains, “The future of work must begin and end with the restoration of the individual.”

Jeremy recently put his concept of open discussions to collaborate and create the future of work on behalf of Acivico, a Birmingham, England-based provider of design, construction, facilities cleaning, and catering services. The company wanted its next chapter to be one of greater collaboration and social good. “You can’t innovate without collaboration,” Jeremy explained.

Recognizing that social good and business success in today’s Digital Age can easily co-exist and are preferable to many younger workers, Acivico’s CEO at the time, Trevor Haynes, asked Jeremy to work with a core team of employees to create a social room. This room would serve as a virtual meeting place for people in the company and the local community to engage more personally with one another through social media. A social native himself, Jeremy first connected with Haynes (who continues to serve on Acivico’s board) via Twitter.

The collaborations gave rise to #ACIVICommunity, a Birmingham Social Room hosted by Acivico. People who participate in the social room have the opportunity to engage in social-good projects and collaborations across Birmingham. “They can use the platform to initiate or follow social-good projects they believe in,” said Jeremy. “These projects are open to the community to join with Acivico employees to enable more social good and business to be done at scale.”

One example is to leverage the social room to collaborate on solutions to the city’s homeless crisis, providing every homeless person with daily sleeping accommodations and meals. Other examples include working with local businesses to create job opportunities for ex-offenders who struggle to get second chances, and engaging schools and students to become more involved in social activities. Certainly, the latter would assist the early development of the next generation of community and business leaders. The possibilities are inspiring and endless.

What does all this have to do with robots? In the new Augmented Age, the efforts of a single person or organization can reach far beyond what we could imagine in the past and can transform the experience of people for the better—as in the case of the people of Birmingham, who through social collaboration and the assistance of local business, are reimagining a more connected and positive future benefitting both business and society. Now is the time to seize the opportunity to create such an organization, one driven by people sharing their respective brilliance to create a better world for all.