Jobs Automation: Growing Public Popularity Means Senior Leaders Must Act
An L.E.K. analysis of over 3,000 press articles reveals that public opinion about jobs automation has grown increasingly positive over the last six years, a trend that the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated.
But there are regional differences in positive sentiment, with major European economies lagging the Asia-Pacific region.
Media sentiment toward jobs automation is also mostly positive, especially among specialist and technical publications.
In many sectors, the automation train has already left the station. Business leaders can lay the foundation for success by taking action in three areas: horizon-scanning, staff surveys and messaging around how the company is addressing automation.
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Automation continues to have a positive impact on job creation, as we highlighted in our previous Executive Insights “Automation and Jobs: Why CEOs Must Prepare for Structural Change" published in March 2020. Indeed, within the UK labour market, the advent of new technologies has not only created more jobs than it has replaced, but also jobs that are more resilient to automation through being more complex, social and creative.
These trends towards automation have continued and have been accelerated by COVID-19, with lockdowns prompting many companies to harness the potential of replacing some in-person activities (but much less so whole jobs) with automated processes.
In this Executive Insights, we examine how public opinion towards automation has become increasingly positive over recent years as more and more people have real-world experience of automated services, accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic. We also highlight the various ways in which CEOs should be looking to reposition their businesses as jobs automation accelerates over the coming years, changing the mix of skills needed by their workforce.
Public opinion towards jobs automation is increasingly positive, accelerated by COVID-19
In keeping with the topic, L.E.K. has used natural language processing (a machine learning algorithm enabling computers to understand and analyse human speech) to examine over 3,000 press articles on the subject of jobs automation over the period from 2015 to summer 2021, with a resulting classification of positive, neutral or negative. These press articles covered a broad selection of predominantly English language publications across a range of countries.
The analysis shows that public opinion has become increasingly positive towards jobs automation in recent years as more and more people encounter and have positive experiences of automation in their daily lives: positive sentiment towards ‘job automation’ rose from around 52% of articles in 2017 to 79% by June 2021.
The fact that the first half of 2021 is by far the most positive period across our survey reflects, at least in part, its timing after the worst of the initial stages of the pandemic and related lockdowns, which have accelerated adoption of automation.
This acceleration has happened partly through necessity. For example:
Banks were initially overwhelmed by volumes of queries from panicked customers in the early stages of the pandemic and were forced to adopt automated means of handling these. Many customers who would never voluntarily interact with their banks this way, e.g. through online channels or chatbots, have been forced to do so, and found this to be much more to their liking than they expected.
Physical non-essential retail stores were closed by governments to prevent the spread of COVID-19, which increased use of ecommerce and online delivery companies during the period of lockdown, both of which use automation more extensively than their bricks-and-mortar equivalents.
More and more people have therefore had positive real-world experience of interacting with automated technology through and after the pandemic, which we believe has contributed to more rapidly improving sentiment.
The pandemic has also accelerated commercial interest in taking automation further, for reasons both of risk reduction and of more positive, transformational development. For example:
Warehouses have increasingly adopted robot picking and packing of goods to reduce the health risk of COVID-19 transmission and the business execution risk by covering for and reducing the impact of staff absences and shortages. This includes both direct risk (as in the peak of the health crisis itself) and indirect risk, for example, in the subsequent ‘pingdemic’ which occurred as the UK gradually reopened for business in summer 2021.
Google is currently carrying out cutting-edge research into how robotic process automation (RPA) software can also be incorporated into industrial robots. In July 2021, Google launched a new company, Intrinsic, with the aim of building software that will make industrial robots “easier to use, less costly and more flexible”.
Asia leads the way in adoption of and positivity towards automation
L.E.K. analysis of over 3,000 press articles published since 2015 also found that the major European countries are lagging behind the Asia-Pacific region in terms of positive sentiment towards jobs automation.
This analysis shows that Singapore leads the way with 83% of articles relating to jobs automation being positive, closely followed by China at 77%. This compares to 33% of articles for Germany and below 20% for Italy, where interaction with automated services in daily life remains much lower than the more forward-thinking Asia-Pacific economies.
Media hostility towards jobs automation is falling away
In previous years, TV and print media have broadcast or published sensationalist stories that decry the ‘inevitable’ loss of human jobs to automation. However, as our previous Executive Insights in March 2020 showed, this presumed conclusion was incorrect, with automation in fact having led to an increase in both the quality and quantity of jobs available within the UK labour market.
Through L.E.K.’s analysis of various types of media over the past six years, we have discovered that most of the media is now positive towards jobs automation. Figure 3 of our analysis shows that specialist and technical publications lead the way in terms of their positive assessment of jobs automation, with a 93% positive view from newswires and a 75% positive view from business news/journals.
While tabloids remain a laggard, with a score of just 45%, their readership profile tends to be skewed more towards older people (who in turn are more likely to be retired), so proportionately fewer younger employees (who will be developing their careers during this future period of greater automation) will be influenced in their viewpoints towards jobs automation by this source.
Implementing automation: speed is of the essence
Within many sectors, it can be argued that the automation train has already left the station, and therefore it remains urgent for businesses to step up their investment in automation, if they have not already done so, to lay the foundations for future success.
We have identified the following areas which will help our clients succeed in this world of increased jobs automation:
First, we would urge our clients to carry out ‘horizon-scanning’ — namely to understand the best (and worst) of what is now being achieved in jobs automation by peers and competitors, in detailed, practical terms.
It is also important to survey staff in terms of their own personal attitudes and preferences towards jobs automation, and their readiness to accept a greater amount of change in how they work day-to-day — generic or poorly thought through solutions have the potential to do more harm than good if they do not address the actual needs of the specific situation.
Developing appropriate market-facing and employee-facing messaging around how the company is addressing automation is also key, with the view of presenting a compelling but balanced long-term picture as to how jobs automation will impact the business.
In addition, the need that we have previously identified for CEOs to engage proactively with the potential offered by automation remains crucial. Traditionalists looking to pander to older staff fears around automation will become increasingly out of kilter with younger and more optimistic employees.
With public opinion becoming better informed with each passing year about the real-world benefits of automation, we would reiterate our call for CEOs to develop strategies to retain and develop existing talent to carry out the next generation of more automated work and to align staff and management incentives with automation trends so that all parts of the business are seeking, not resisting, automation.
The authors would like to thank Duarte Pimentel (Senior Data & Analytics Specialist) in L.E.K.’s European Data & Analytics team for his contributions to this article.