Written by Ian Gosling, founder and CEO, AUTTO
It’s tough to be in HR right now. And, with 40 per cent of UK companies reporting skills shortages for their vacant roles, it isn’t hard to see why. After a relentless 18 months of Covid-19-induced disruption, from furlough schemes and home working to the impact of the ‘pingdemic’, this latest challenge is yet another threat to businesses and their ability to successfully bounce back.
These shortages make for a competitive jobs market where the candidate is king. Salary inflation, particularly in sectors that require specific expertise – think HGV drivers, many of whom have received 40 per cent pay increases in recent weeks, makes finding, recruiting, and retaining good people infinitely more important. It also makes it more difficult, time consuming and expensive.
Automation represents a means of mitigating the negative impact the skills shortage poses to employers. Not by replacing people – it’ll be a while before we see automated HGVs chugging along the M4 corridor! But by enabling businesses to derive the very best from existing people, attract new talent and remove constraints on commercial growth. HR departments have a crucial role to play in supporting employers through these challenging economic times. Understanding the business case for automation forms part of this battle, as does creating a road map for its adoption.
Automation for retention and redeployment
People – their knowledge, expertise, and passion – are the lifeblood of any organisation. During a skills shortage, with countless vacancies to fill, it’s easy to lose sight of what you already have. The first step in mitigating the impact of the skills shortage is to tackle it from within. This means putting measures in place to retain existing talent and thereby preventing a bad situation becoming a worse one. It’s also about looking at how you’re utilising existing resource and exploring ways it can be improved upon.
Automation can support both agendas.
For instance, studies suggest that knowledge workers spend between 30 and 40 per cent of their time carrying out mundane, mechanistic tasks. Pretty boring stuff for the employee and arguably not the best, most efficient, or cost-effective use of their time and talent.
Reducing the amount of time employees spend on routine and repetitive tasks can contribute to a more attractive working environment. One that requires less time retyping the same content into several systems or chasing colleagues by email to complete actions. Essentially what we need to do is take their time and swap it for technology that can remove this routine hassle and do the heavy lifting so that businesses can operate more smoothly. We need people to be doing things that take advantage of their talents and creativity, not wrapped up in the boring stuff that, frankly, a computer can do in a fraction of the time.
The result of embracing automation is that employees are happier in their roles and less likely to look elsewhere. New recruits are incentivised to join a business where most of their time is spent doing work they actually enjoy and using tools they expect to be available to them – more on this in a moment. And finally, by automating cumbersome workflows, processes become seamless. Suddenly one automated process is feeding into another, and another until the whole cadence of a business becomes faster and more efficient. As a result, a significant proportion of that 30 to 40 per cent of employee time can be redeployed to effectively tackle skills shortages, while supporting enhanced profitability.
Appealing to the digital native
In a hyper competitive jobs market, understanding your audience is mission critical. When considering automation’s role in mitigating the impact of the skills shortage, we must consider who we are attempting to appeal to, both now and in future.
People entering the jobs market are digital natives. They’ve never known a world without WiFi or smart phones. They’re familiar with tools that assist them in their day to day lives and have come of age in an education system where basic coding features from the primary years. They aren’t just well versed in the convenience of digital, they expect it. And they expect to work for digitally enabled businesses.
This starts with the moment they accept an offer of employment. The onboarding period is a prime example of where automation can simultaneously streamline processes to deliver bottom-line benefit for businesses and add value for employees. From contracts and policies to inductions and performance reviews, it is all very mechanistic and repeatable and ripe for automation. Especially in the current climate, where hybrid working is the new normal. There are fewer ‘water cooler’ moments for the softer side of induction into a new business to happen organically. When new people are working from home, orientating them to the softer, more human side of how the business works, who to ask for support and so on is challenging. An automated onboarding process that takes this into consideration and provides videos from key members of staff with introductions to specific departments can help new recruits familiarise themselves with their new employer. It can also offer HR departments and the businesses they support a scalable, repeatable way of doing things.
Additionally, as these digital natives increase in number, and if employers wish to recruit and retain them, they can’t be made to spend their time on routine, boring work. They need to be empowered to spend their time on things that are interesting; tasks that challenge them in all the right ways and utilise the cognitive abilities of a human being.
Removing growth constraints
We’ve seen a significant bounce back in economic growth recently and, in part, this is driving the skills shortage. We may be living through unprecedented times but there are many businesses that are growing despite the continued economic challenges. However, skills shortages risk constraining this growth. While automation certainly has potential to retain and attract employees, it can also support businesses to unearth their true growth potential by redressing the balance caused by skills shortages. Through embracing automation, businesses can increase output and/or revenue, without needing to increase proportional headcount.
However, it must be approached with caution. HR has a key role to play in helping businesses understand the efficiency gains that can be achieved by freeing up employees’ time that would otherwise be spent on routine and mundane work.
Being an advocate for automation fits neatly within the HR remit as, believe it or not, automation really is a people focus. Despite this, we talk about technology far too much. What we really need to look at is how automation can free up people. HR professionals are at the coal face of personnel management so are naturally well placed to examine the skills entering the workplace and identify the opportunities that exist.
The journey to digital transformation
Admittedly, automation used to represent an investment that was out of reach for many businesses. Costing hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of pounds and requiring software implementations delivered by highly qualified programmers. If you didn’t have the capital, automation wasn’t an option. The introduction of ‘no code’ business automation platforms and Software as a Service models (SaaS) have made automation more accessible and more affordable to more businesses. And it’s people already in the workforce, those with an analytical head of their shoulders, that are the key to unlocking the potential of automation in plugging the skills gap and helping businesses grow.
Digital transformation doesn’t happen overnight. Nor can it claim to solve 100 per cent of problems caused by the current economic climate. But, by taking small incremental steps – by automating repeatable, time consuming processes across departments, taking time to learn and explore where else automation can be utilised – human resource can be maximised, people supported, and huge efficiency gains realised. The HR department is uniquely placed to advocate for this approach to not only support employers through the immediate threat of skills shortages but to ensure people and employers have the tools they need to navigate the challenges of the future.
About the author
Ian is a product manager and consultant specialising in SaaS, e-commerce and media. He comes from a digital transformation and venture capital background. Ian manages AUTTO’s product planning, finance and operations.