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How to make robots and employees best friends

Mark Eccles

PwC recently estimated that up to 30% of UK jobs could be automated by the 2030s. Considering this it’s easy to see why a business’ employees might worry that robots entering the workplace could be the death knell of their career. Contributor Mark Eccles, General manager – Gazprom Energy. 

However, we found quite the opposite. Introducing robotics created benefits for us as a business, and improved the working lives and productivity of our employees too. In fact we discovered that robots can actually lead to positive rather than negative employee engagement.

At Gazprom Energy our foray into robotics was through the introduction of robotic process automation (RPA), because we wanted to speed up repetitive and mundane tasks that were proving time consuming. RPA involves automating processes where people use IT systems, enabling software to carry out the task on repeat with no human involvement. Our employees were fundamental in embedding RPA, mapping out processes end to end and re-building them using RPA software. 

Organisations that take the Artificial Intelligence approach require even less human intervention, as the system is able to make informed judgements and provide reasoning for its actions. Like many organisations our RPA initiative was efficiency led – to reduce the time, cost and error involved in human processes. However, we weren’t looking to actually reduce labour costs or headcount as a result. We saw greater merit in RPA releasing staff from burdensome tasks so that they had time to focus on the valuable and more satisfying aspects of their roles.

We were confident that RPA would help our business operations run better after seeing it in action at several companies. The head of our IT team was involved in developing RPA at a leading mobile network operator, having worked there previously. He had seen RPA’s potential in a number of key processes, including automating SIM card swaps and carrying out credit checks, and recommended how similar benefits could be achieved within some of our own processes. Once I and other senior managers agreed to progress with it, we shared what we had seen with employees, and informed them on RPA’s exciting potential at Gazprom Energy. Our message was loud and clear: we didn’t intend for RPA to replace existing staff, and it was instead brought in to help them. We were sure to reinforce this to employees.

We lived up to our promise soon into the project, having rolled out RPA in our Gas Read Management team. Previously, the team had to manually validate and upload meter readings to a number of software systems. But thanks to RPA, those employees now have the time to carry out more valuable tasks, which make their jobs more rewarding and further benefit the business. It has been rolled out into other departments too, including billing, reducing admin across the organisation and allowing employees to focus on areas such as customer service, which is a key part of our ethos. Two years into the project, we haven’t made a single redundancy due to RPA.

RPA showed us that employee engagement is about far more than simply giving staff benefits and perks, but about making their roles more stimulating. Repetitive and mundane tasks are a given for many jobs, but thanks to RPA it can be kept to a minimum. Instead, their time can be spent doing what they entered the profession for. In fact, people are choosing to work in RPA enabled teams and developing their career opportunities thanks to the software. This includes an employee who began as a gas billing analyst and is now working with RPA on a daily basis as a process improvement analyst.

Handing over certain tasks to a piece of computer software is a big change for any business, and some employees will need reassuring that their job isn’t on the line. Communication is key so that staff can understand that it’s there to help them as much as it is to develop the business. If people across the organisation embrace the change, man and machine can work according to their own strengths and be effective together.

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