Workplace Automation: Predictions And Reality

Not all human skills can be replicated by a machine no matter how sophisticated. Here’s how smart organizations are strategically automating workplace tools to boost human capabilities.

By Hugues Meyrath

As automation technology advances at breakneck speed, its potential effect on the workplace has grown into a lively and contentious debate with a central focus around how automation will impact human workers. Responses vary depending who you ask. U.S. treasury secretary, Steve Mnuchin, recently said that automation in the workplace is not an issue as it is 50-100 years away from impact. In 2016, Obama’s White House acknowledged the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) and automation at work and predicted 20 years to maturity, but advised that humans shouldn’t be worried about their jobs.

Workplace Automation
Credit: Stockbyte

With the recent advances in technology, the impact may be even sooner as technology company continuously increase their investments to differentiate in the marketplace. While our lives are greatly impacted by technology, not all human skills can be replicated by a machine no matter how sophisticated. Here’s how smart organizations are strategically automating workplace tools to boost human capabilities.

Automating Workplace Tools

From the Internet of Things (IoT) to autonomous equipment, predictive maintenance, and asset-based maintenance, emerging and existing technologies are driving change across all industries including facilities management. Historically an industry with traditional processes, facilities management has seen a baseline increase in innovation over the last 10 years with a transition from pen and paper to workflow-based software, which unsurprisingly yields a greater level of efficiency. But the next 10 years will see an aggressive shift to self-managed facilities driven by IoT integration, machine learning, and artificial intelligence. As new technology is introduced into the facilities sector, everyday tasks are easier, more transparent, more automated, and more intelligent.

The decreasing costs and ease of connectivity, increase in devices with built-in sensors, and the ubiquitous presence of smartphones, creates the perfect storm for IoT in facilities. For example, equipment and assets can be purchased or easily retrofitted with IoT sensors, enabling communication of all kinds including automated alerts reporting on the current condition of the equipment and possible service needs, etc. Smart sensors and self-monitoring equipment are valuable in facilities management as they enable technicians to not only measure equipment health, but even make predictive recommendations around servicing and preventive maintenance needs. These preemptive maintenance “strikes” result in lower costs; a result of smaller problems, fewer service calls and eliminated service interruptions — a huge efficiency gain.

Emerging AI-like tools and software applications will start transforming the facilities space, equipping managers with data-driven recommendations. One of the critical dimensions of machine learning and AI is the data it generates, and combined with proper analysis, reporting and action, this data can provide much greater visibility into equipment and the maintenance ecosystem enabling facility managers to make more informed repair/replace decisions. This lays the groundwork for more suggestive and predictive capabilities on every decision point across a facilities program. As a result, executives are redefining the facilities manager role as data driven decision making is becoming the norm. Gut decisions are becoming a thing of the past with information and intelligence being easier to access than ever before.

Pros And Cons

The fears that lie in the threat of automation on today’s workforce is not without merit. With pioneering technology-based companies setting a new standard resulting in the need for on-demand customer service, technology proves essential. This is also translating into heightened expectations specific to the facilities customers are frequenting. Let’s face it: in today’s world, we are gratified with on demand movies, music, food delivery, car services and we can control our home equipment from thermostats to pool equipment with the help of a smartphone. In commercial office space, employees want more control over the temperature of their workspace, to notify their peers of their location, to order supplies and other services from the comfort of their chair (yes, it is happening). For retailers and restaurants, more desirable physical environments (and associated sensory experiences) can drive greater revenue because customers are more likely to stay longer and visit more often.

Innovation continues to mature in ways we can’t predict and some jobs will change over time as a result, but it’s highly unlikely — impossible even — that society will ever seek to automate the entire human workforce. From doctors to teachers to salespeople, many jobs require cognitive and social skills, which cannot be programmed effectively into a machine. While machines can be programmed to replicate behaviors or actions, emotional intelligence and human touch will remain a focal point of our interactions. But you also can’t fight the fact that automation increases efficiency in many ways. Facilities management professionals know that adopting new technologies will not only help them survive, but thrive in difficult competitive markets including retail, restaurant, and other traditional brick and mortar industries.

As corporate strategies shift, the modern facilities manager needs to adapt as well. The challenge for executives is determining where automation can transform their organization and unlock value. The majority of the benefits may not come from reducing costs of labor but from improving productivity through automating key business and service processes. Freeing up facility managers to focus more time on competencies that cannot be replaced by a machine is a measurable benefit. Understanding the activities that are most susceptible to automation could provide a unique opportunity for facility managers to rethink how they engage with their jobs and the skills they possess. To get ready for automation’s future advances, progressive facility managers must view automation as a productivity catalyst, and less of a threat.

Workplace AutomationHugues Meyrath is Chief Product Officer, ServiceChannel. He is responsible for driving and executing the company’s product strategy and roadmap with emphasis on enhancing and simplifying the user experience throughout the ServiceChannel software portfolio. His charter also includes fostering and driving key technology partnerships as a way to accelerate product innovation. Hugues brings extensive experience at global technology companies. Most recently, he served as Vice President and Managing Director at Dell Technologies Capital where he was responsible for driving venture funding, mergers & acquisitions and other advisory roles for a diverse set of portfolio companies. Previous to that, he was Vice President of Product Management and Business Development for EMC’s data protection business. Meyrath’s experience also includes executive roles at Juniper Networks, Brocade Communications and SBS.