Collection No 6

Future of Work

The Downsides of Workplace Automation

Certain tools built to simplify work are holding us back.

As a child, I woke up every Saturday morning, turned on the TV, and tuned in to watch my favorite cartoons: “The Flintstones” and “The Jetsons.” “The Flintstones” centers on a blue-collar family in a fictional prehistoric era, and “The Jetsons” is about a fully automated futuristic world, where an everyday task can be done with the push of a button. The running joke in both shows involves the main characters, Fred Flintstone and George Jetson, getting tangled up with some catastrophic scenario at work, which inevitably gets them fired. By the end of each episode, they have almost always resolved the situation and been magically forgiven by management, getting their jobs back. As an adult, I wondered how the writers of “The Jetsons” created a character living in the far-off future who was so prone to making mistakes in an automated workplace.

The writers of these two shows must have known that it does not matter what era we live in: humans are willful creatures, and we will happily buck the system if we believe there is a better way. Still, the allure of automation is well established; as digital communication continues to bring the world closer together, automation in the form of applications or services lets global businesses maintain a sense of control. But as companies move toward this goalpost, they should consider the downsides of automation.

We know that automation simplifies, but simplification can hide unforeseen problems. The more we try to normalize digital processes through automation, the less we recognize hidden annoyances that result from simplification. Businesses often try to adopt an off-the-shelf business application and later discover the anomalies, like time wasted on distracting tasks that are the result of accepting default application settings. The problem is often unrealized during the trial phase and becomes difficult to manually track or accommodate once it is established as part of the business process.

For example, receiving unwanted automated emails (like status updates or interest group discussions) is often the result of a default setting for an adopted application or digital service. Often these applications are tested or evaluated by executives or managers, who might benefit from the automated emails, but when the applications are rolled out to an entire workforce, many people begin receiving notifications that amount to spam. Time is wasted while employees create manual workarounds to avoid automated emails.

In other cases, automation works well in the beginning but then becomes obsolete. With the current rate of technological change, obsolescence is hard to avoid. Remember when you used to return to your office after a vacation to find a blinking red light on your desk phone notifying you of messages left by colleagues? In the wake of the bring-your-own-device (BYOD) trend, we lost touch with this once important part of business automation.

Voicemails left on company systems are practically nonexistent as a modern business practice. People have developed new ways to reach each other as the trend has shifted from working at our desks to working from home, at the coffee shop, or while commuting on public transportation. Even so, IT departments are trying to keep legacy voicemail services alive. They do this by notifying employees via email when they receive a voicemail. Businesses continue to hold on to outdated automation processes and overlap them with new automation, which represents expensive maintenance costs in the long run. When an automation tool no longer meets a business’s needs and the developer of the tool is either unavailable or lacks the incentive to fix it, creative output is diminished.

The producers of “The Jetsons” depicted a future world in which automation seemingly made everything simpler. The irony of George Jetson’s misadventures is that automation does not necessarily beget simplicity. In spite of the increasing role of automation in today’s workplace, our digital world is not getting simpler and often creates new complexities. As new technologies come into view, perhaps we need workers who are prepared to do the necessary work manually first, in order to gain insight and understanding about how things operate. Using automation aggressively can introduce a chain reaction of hidden process problems that are costly to address and leave your workforce without the skills to solve problems on their own. I can see clearly now why George Jetson still had a job in his fully automated world: without a human being in the picture, there would not be a company at all.

Mark Kobayashi

Mark Kobayashi is equal parts engineer, designer, and tinkerer. In the past, Mark lead engineering efforts at wireless communication companies Qualcomm and Ericsson.

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