Escaping the inflexible parts of work with robot companions

24 August 2022 Consultancy.com.au 6 min. read

Employers need to come up with a more compelling proposition than what passes as flexible work arrangements today, with robot companions one of the use cases to consider, writes Rajith Haththotuwegama from Tecala.

On all the available evidence, flexible work is here to stay, but that does not mean that current models can’t be improved. Flexible working 1.0 in Australia is often considered in overly narrow terms, such as less time spent commuting that leaves more time for “exercise and other activities”.

But is this slight rearrangement of existing working hours really “flexibility” or are employees making up the time – or overcompensating – elsewhere?

Rajith Haththotuwegama, Manager, Tecala

Case in point: a study by Swinburne University shows one in three workers are putting in more hours now than they did two years ago, and “more than half are working outside their ‘standard’ hours at least once a week.”

This runs counter to the purpose and the ideal of flexible working. It also brings us to a related point: Working flexibly still does not mean working efficiently.

Almost certainly there are inflexible processes or aspects to existing job roles that have followed employees home (or to wherever they now perform work). This could be the preparation of weekly or monthly reports; manual processing of invoices or contracts; or other forms of administrative paperwork.

When employees have periodic tasks, there’s no flexibility in when they can be done. The activity needs to be completed by a certain time, and that’s usually the end of the conversation.

These friction points to flexible working all add up in the minds of employees. The things that employees don’t enjoy about their roles can quickly escalate into trigger points for exit. Recruiting to replace a single star performer and training up the new hire can cost organisations up to $400,000 and two years of effort. In the current war for talent, this is not a place that an organisation wants to find itself in.

As NAB noted recently, “Some businesses may require a more compelling employee proposition to prevent costly and time-consuming people movement.”

So, what to do? We need to move away from this idea that flexibility is only about choosing where you work, or being able to cram the odd bit of life admin into existing business hours.

We need to work towards what could be considered flexible working 2.0, a mindstate and model that gives people the tools and assistance to streamline or offload the more inflexible parts of their job roles, giving them more control over what work they perform, and when.

Doing so will allow employees to actually experience what flexible working should be, and employers to lock into the promised benefits of improved employee wellbeing, satisfaction and retention.

A tipping point for virtual companion workers

When designing or seeking to improve on a flexible work strategy and model, employers can benefit from taking a more employee-centric view, and by asking the question: what can be done to really make an employee’s life easier?

Automation is one strategy that leading organisations are using to improve the lives of employees, by increasing their ability to work flexibly.

While early pitches for automation often revolved around replacing employees, the technology is now much more about augmenting employees by providing a tool or capability that can handle the most mundane and repetitive tasks that employees otherwise find themselves doing.

Today, leading organisations treat bots – enabled by robotic process automation (RPA) technology – almost as “companions” for employees. Some organisations have a goal to have a one-to-one ratio between employees and bots – effectively, a bot for every employee that they can offload administrative tasks to.

Further reading: How to harness the power of robotic process automation.

This is part of Tecala’s own vision for the future of our workplace. We’ve already started to give people their own robots that sit in their system tray and have three or four tasks that they are capable of executing.

These bots don't need to be advanced conversational AIs. Instead, they behave as companion task workers that can be brought in to do the repetitive or 'inflexible' parts of people’s jobsSoftware also exists today that can sit ‘with’ an employee and observe how they work in order to identify the most repetitive tasks that could be conducive to being handled by an algorithm or bot, so that more opportunities and inflexible work practices can be identified sooner.

For example, end of month reporting is a task that has to happen each month, in a set time frame, meaning late nights and lots of stress each month. So regardless of your flexible working arrangements this highly repetitive task has to be done at the same time, no matter what.

In the intelligent business practice, Bots are able extract and collate data from a variety of sources and assemble it into month-end reports, and so by delegating this inflexible task to your virtual companion co-worker, you maintain the flexibility of your own work routine. And parents of young families everywhere breathe a collective sigh of relief.

This is delivering a new way of working allowing people to focus on the more valuable, meaningful or pleasurable aspects of their role. With all the grunt work being taken care of by a virtual worker (or bot) that is directed and overseen by the employee, people are able to develop new approaches to achieving even better business outcomes, free from the ties of repetitive, time-consuming and mundane tasks.

With intelligent business practices being implemented in this way, and bots behaving more like personal assistants, flexible working starts to look truly... ‘flexible’. With more aspects of execution can be ably handled virtually, employees can spend more time on high value activities, like business development or delivering great customer services.

It could also mean employees being able to work a shorter week, while still achieving all their personal and operational objectives. This would allow more mothers to return to the workforce, and it would allow more parents generally to play a more active part in their children’s lives and do more in their local community.

If you could allocate all your laborious month-end tasks to your personal bot, while you take your family on that camping trip you’ve been promising for years, isn’t that an outcome worth investing in?