Robots in the workplace? Yes, but not as we know them

Development will mean moving people on to more advanced jobs and developing skills

In a certain science fiction-influenced view of the future, robots will be our ever-willing servants, taking on the work that we no longer want to do, making our home and work lives easier. It seems like a long way off. But is it?

It all depends on your definition of robot. If you want an I, Robot-style companion that is physically present in your office, you may have to wait a while. But there is also robotic process automation (RPA), and that is available now.

Think about how the office has evolved in recent years. Where once you had phone operators, routing calls to the correct person, now you have automated phone systems that transfer people at the press of a button. Manual data entry has been replaced by automated databases.

"There is a great misunderstanding of robotic process automation," says Martin Weiss, EY's robotics leader for the EMEIA region. "It's not robots, it's software. The software emulates human actions. In your daily life you open your email, you extract files; if you research, you look at external databases and put it together in a spreadsheet. All these steps we can document and automate with this new technology in place."


While it may sound revolutionary, Weiss says the software that is being used has been around for 20 years. But these days it’s just much easier to use.

“It’s like a macro but the good thing it it has a very nice graphical user interface. It’s an object-based technology that sits on top of your ERP systems, so it is minimally invasive – you don’t have to switch your existing systems. It’s a top layer on your whole IT landscape.”

At its very simplest, think of autocorrect. When you type a word and misspell it, it automatically corrects it for you. RPA essentially works the same way, but is more sophisticated. It can be linked to your login so that your rules for certain tasks can be different from those of a colleague.

Rules, rules, rules

Rules are key – your RPA is only as good as the rules you give it. That may change in the future, with some companies building in machine learning and deep learning mechanisms that will allow RPA to evolve and become almost artificial intelligence.

Weiss says that could mean giving the system access to an archive of data, such as invoices posted, and the software will learn from that, digging out the rules that are behind it and making a proposal to the business analyst to create that rule.

It removes the repetitive nature of some work, allowing the robots to take on the dull tasks. That has benefits for both employees and businesses, allowing companies to cut costs in some areas, and transforming the workforce in the proess.

“What will happen to the workforce in the future? We always say we take the robotic behaviour out of human beings,” he said. “Because human beings should focus on decision-making, interpretation and being human: communicating and interacting with each other, doing analytics, but maybe not just doing a repetitive task the whole day. It’s boring, you lose people.”

In fact, Weiss estimates that boredom could result in staff turnover of up to 30 per cent, meaning a call centre with 100 people is looking to fill 30 jobs because the work is too dull to keep people engaged. Investing in some form of RPA could help remove that monotony and offer people jobs that are more satisfying – and ones they are less likely to leave.

It’s of particular interest to Ireland, with Weiss describing the country as a hotspot for shared services organisations.

Replacement crew

It raises another issue, though. When robots have entered the workplace, they have traditionally replaced human workers. Automatic electric street lights eliminated lamplighters, for example. And take a look at the assembly line. Whereas once it would have been staffed by human workers, it has, in many cases, been changed to an automated system. That means fewer jobs on the assembly line for human workers.

It’s the lower-paid jobs that are usually at risk, with workers who traditionally filled these roles finding themselves looking for alternative employment. Could the same thing happen to the office environment?

Weiss admits that there will be a shift, but it could be turned to an advantage for workers.

“We see a trend that you could utilise these people in exception-handling teams,” he says. “There is no 100 per cent zero-error robot. There is always a business case you haven’t thought of when you create the rules.”

It will also mean moving people on to more advanced jobs, training and developing their skills. Infact, they could encourage people to automate their own workspace, not only making their own work lives easier but also adopting RPA almost by stealth.

“We advise our clients to take the benefits out of RPA and invest in their people. You upskill people in Ireland and train them to do automation themselves and concentrate on more value-added tasks: creating reports, writing analytical comments,” says Weiss. “It’s really an interpretation, human judgment. This you can’t automate.”