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Simone Cheng: Are robots in the workplace really that big of a threat?

Tuesday 05 February 2019

Simone Cheng, Acas Policy Adviser discusses new technologies and the workplace.

Simone Cheng Simone Cheng


Acas Policy Adviser.




Winter is definitely coming in Game of Thrones but can the same be said about robots in the workplace? In a new Acas poll pdf icon Can work be both productive and good? [308kb], 85% of employees said they are not worried that their current role could be done by a machine, rather than a human, in the future.

While mainstream headlines may be focusing on mass job loss due to automation, the recent narrative has quite rightly shifted to how technology can enhance existing jobs and create new ones. It's no longer an 'us or them' scenario, and this change in commentary may well be feeding into employee perceptions.

Numerous examples in previous research by Acas and the IPA pdf icon Mind Over Machines: New technology and employment relations [584kb] also supported the view that technology can help us at work, for instance by automating the more difficult or mundane tasks and saving time. Indeed, many of us have welcomed smartphones and smart devices at home because they make our lives easier.

In view of the potential positive impacts of technology on worker efficiency, the TUC recently suggested that the UK should move to a four-day working week over the next century. Its report highlighted that the number of people working all seven days of the week is more than 1.4 million, but 45% of respondents in its survey would prefer to work only four days with no loss of pay.

Some employers have already been trialling this. One firm in New Zealand - reportedly the first in the world to pay its staff for five when working four days - found the change boosted productivity to such a level that it made it permanent. Employees were more engaged and achieved a better 'work-life balance', something which more than half (53%) of employees in Acas' poll rated as an important issue in their working lives in 2019, followed closely by 'staying healthy and feeling well' (51%).

But while the UK's culture of long working hours doesn't seem to be making us more productive, the opposite might not automatically be true. Here are just a few considerations which come to mind:

  • Is the same amount of work, or even more, expected in less time?
  • Is there an expectation to be available outside of working hours?
  • What's the impact on other entitlements, such as holidays and breaks?

Such issues of course apply to all kinds of working pattern. Acas' research pdf icon Mind Over Machines: New technology and employment relations [584kb] noted that as a result of the introduction of technology, workers suffered from work intensification and an increase in stress levels - neither of which are conducive to improving work-life balance nor productivity.

Ultimately the success of any change relies upon a deep understanding of what will work for both the business and its workers. Technology can no doubt enable us to work more flexibly and efficiently, but knowing where the boundaries lie is crucial.

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