Who’s Afraid of Automation?

Despite all the hand-wringing over automation’s potential to displace scores of hard-working humans, it seems that a majority of employees are actually ready to welcome our new robot overlords.

In fact, just 14 percent of U.S. employees say they’re worried that automation will take their job away someday, according to new research from Atlanta-based Randstad North America.

The 2017 Randstad Employer Brand Research study polled more than 5,300 workers, with 76 percent of respondents saying they don’t fear automation. Nearly one-third of employees (30 percent) said they think artificial intelligence and automation will make their jobs better.

This optimism seems to be at odds with how some have described the prevailing employee sentiment toward robotics in the workplace.

In a May 2017 HRE feature, for example, Laura Maechtlen discussed the “Chicken Little-type thinking” she often encounters in discussions about automation’s impact on the future of work.

“There’s just so much fear about people being replaced,” said Maechtlen, a San Francisco-based partner at Seyfarth Shaw, and co-chair of the firm’s diversity and inclusion action team.

That fear isn’t well-founded, she told us, adding that automation should be seen as an opportunity to augment an organization’s talent, not to supplant its employees.

This recent Randstad poll certainly suggests that employees are getting more comfortable with the concept of artificial intelligence and automation, and many would be willing to take part in additional training to maintain their current job status. Overall, 51 percent said they would be happy to retrain in order to develop and update the skills needed to work alongside AI—provided that they were being paid the same or more than their current salary.

“It is evident from our research that not only are workers not afraid of losing their jobs to automation, they are more than willing to retrain to leverage the efficiencies and benefits of artificial intelligence and robotics in the workplace,” says Linda Galipeau, CEO of Randstad North America, in a statement.

“These sentiments should be welcome news for companies as they seek greater adoption of automation to drive productivity and innovation,” says Galipeau. “As we have known for quite some time, the success of organizations in the future will depend greatly on their ability to strike a balance between valuable human insight and interaction with technology.”

While AI is “becoming a reality” in the workplace, this influx of automation “doesn’t make human skills less valuable,” Jim Link, chief human resources officer at Randstad North America, tells HRE.

In the future, says Link, an organization’s success will depend on its ability to enable humans and AI to function collectively and collaborate effectively.

“Companies and HR leaders owe it to both their companies and their employees to play an active role in communicating and teaching the skills needed for the future, as automation moves into the workplace,” he says.

“This can encompass anything from training programs that focus on upskilling employees’ strategic, problem-solving skills—expertise that AI doesn’t necessarily possess—to providing employees with incentives to develop these skills on their own time.”