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Automation Anxiety is on the Agenda

Robots and computers

Media coverage in recent weeks has placed a clear spotlight on automation and its implications for the workforce of the future.  As a result, automation is now emerging as a new item on the communications agenda, as management must decide how to talk to their employees about new technologies and the impact on the job environment.

recent report by the Brookings Institute details automation’s impact on the workforce with particular emphasis on how the effect on jobs will be felt unevenly — depending on sector and geography. Some companies and industries will be quick to embrace change, while others will be dragged reluctantly into a new reality.

In the world of media, The New York Times’ article “Rise of the Robot Reporter,” describes the efficiencies publishers are seeking through artificial intelligence, while also acknowledging the change this will bring to the newsroom. For communications professionals, the article poses an open challenge – how will we engage media in the future?

It is not too early to think about what to say to employees concerned about change on the horizon. Employees, in fact, are the center of the issue and their concerns are very real. Zeno Group’s own study, Barriers to Employee Engagement, uncovered the depth of workers’ automation anxiety:

  • 49 percent of workers are concerned about the impact of automation on jobs in the future.
  • 40 percent of workers are worried personally about their jobs.
  • 32 percent in the U.S. are concerned. However, the level of worry is much higher in other markets (like Singapore – where 59 percent say they are concerned).
  • 52 percent of millennials say they care about the topic – and this is significantly higher than other generations.

And, most concerning, 60 percent of respondents said nothing was being done at their companies to alleviate this anxiety.

These findings and the tone of recent articles point to a communications imperative. Company leadership needs to change their narratives to address this innovation, what it means for the workforce and how companies intend to help employees make a smooth transition of skills.  Leading companies and industry groups assert the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” will increase the number of jobs; but employees also want to hear how. Our research shows employees are realistic and recognize these new jobs will be very different than the ones they hold today, but this unclear future is making them anxious.

Addressing this topic – and other sensitive issues of concern to employees – will lead to more positive outcomes for employers and employees alike. Open and direct communication, led by leadership and driven by all levels, will answer the clear call indicated in our study for clearer communication about automation, employees’ futures and how they will work together.