People, Technology

Robophobia: The skills you need to survive in the workplace of the future

Brad Eisenhuth /

future skills

The Outperformer founder and chief executive officer Brad Eisenhuth. Source: Supplied.

The AI revolution is set to drive innovation and increase efficiency right across the Australian labour market. But fear-mongering has led many Australians to believe robots will take over or significantly change our jobs.

Yes, the impact of technological advancements will be real, but this is only one side of the coin.

The rise of AI has the potential to enhance humanity and business. We know technology will allow businesses, big and small, to do a lot more with a lot less.

We’ve seen the way technology has been embraced in industries such as mining, forcing businesses to think about how to create more value with the resources available, through the innovation of driverless trucks and intelligent machinery.

Now, the most labour-intensive part of the Australian employment sector, the services industry, will follow this trend for similar reasons.

Accepting the digital future of business means both employers and their teams can now focus on actions that create value (if done well). Employers need to prioritise the experience of their customers, shareholders, and most importantly, their employees.

In a study to understand where ‘value’ lies in the employee experience and what new technologies should be designed to deliver, The Outperformer conducted a survey to explore the relationship between finance (a profession under threat of automation) and non-finance leaders.

Non-finance leaders from a range of fields (including sales, marketing, human resources, technology, operations and general management) across 106 organisations were asked what traits made a finance partner or team effective.

The highest polled responses were problem-solving (58%) and empathy (38%), dwarfing other capabilities such as accuracy and timeliness and systems and process skills.

Interestingly, empathy is something robots aren’t quite so good at, and complex business problem-solving has yet to be proven by technology at scale.

What does this tell us?

This investigation presents a case in today’s era of digital disruption, indicating the dominant responsibility of any function in business can no longer rely on technical skills alone, and that so-called ‘soft skills’ such as emotional intelligence, thinking skills, collaboration and empathy are in high demand.

Conceptually, the combination of robot plus human empathy will better meet the demands of today’s workplace culture and enable the survival of business in this digital era. Of course, I’m telling you something that is very logical, but what does it say about the capabilities business leaders need to nurture?

Here are six tips when thinking about your attention to workplace culture and capabilities in preparation for the future of work.

1. Make tech your friend, not your foe

A recent report commissioned by Google revealed only 9% of Australia’s listed companies are making sustained investments in automation. The same report found Australia could add $2.2 trillion to the nation’s annual income by 2030 if we automate. Instead, we risk blowing it because companies nationwide invest less in robotics than our offshore competitors.

Robots and AI are continuing to innovate the way we work, but as much as they may replace jobs that can be easily automated, they are limited when it comes to capturing the essence of human interaction, emotion, creativity and interpersonal skills.

Equally, in a world where demands on employees and business increase daily, technology should be designed to create the space to bring these skills to life.

Technology is a powerful tool. However, to extract the best value from technology, leaders need to ensure they are taking necessary steps to upskill and re-skill vulnerable teams to not only accept but embrace the potential it creates.

While it is stating the obvious, employees also need to understand their capacity to be a valuable employee will still exist in 10 to 15 years’ time, however, the nature of their work will be completely different.

To prepare for these changes, leaders need to start building teams that are equipped to lead the future of automation to their advantage.

2. Build teams that can connect the dots

Just as high school student’s no longer struggle to source information for class assignments like their parents would have, smart organisations are becoming stronger in the way they capture and manage data.

This changes the value proposition required by many employees. A huge part of the workforce will not be required to manage transactions and capture data in their role. What is done with this collected data is the where the opportunity lies.

Employees will need to learn how to think critically about what data means, how it can be used to help the organisation make better decisions, and ultimately connect this knowledge to achieving strategic and tactical objectives.

Put simply: what data do we have, what does it mean, and what are we going to do about it?

3. You’ve got to collaborate before you innovate

Innovation tends to be associated directly with technological advancements, but innovation is simply about finding a better way of doing things.

According to a Google report, over the next 15 years, Australians will save an average of two hours each week as automation takes on repetitive and manual work. This is good news, given many employees waste time on low-value tasks.

Learning to critically assess tasks for the impact they make on a business and the effort it takes to deliver them will become hugely valuable, but this cannot happen in isolation. Businesses will need to create more room (if they haven’t already) to harness the power of real creativity, collective ideation and the relationships that are impacted by innovation.

So, if we change, what does it mean for traditional roles, and how can we embrace the upside while we work through the downside of getting it implemented?

For this to happen, businesses will need to unlock cross-enterprise opportunities and prepare workplaces to collectively participate in the design of the incoming digital transformation, placing them in the best position to leverage the advantages of the AI revolution and take teams on the journey.

4. Get comfy in the grey areas

When it comes to decision-making, solutions aren’t always black and white. The pace of decision-making is faster than ever, and change is the only constant inside and outside of every business.

Traditional ways of thinking that flow from the industrial revolution are slowly dying as organisations realise an accurate view of their business only lasts for a few seconds. While the quest for accuracy and relevant information in our business is important, it’s no longer the be-all and end-all.

The importance of agility in ambiguity is hugely important. There is a high demand for operating effectively in environments that are unclear, changing and where trade-offs in decisions are always front-of-mind.  

Skills that have been typically been utilised in startups or technology-driven environments such as design thinking and systems thinking will increase dramatically in value. Teams must become creative in their thinking to make decisions when there is no black and white.

Let’s face it, much of our workforce is seeking certainty in the direction of their career and business, where certainty is difficult to guarantee. This is both an opportunity and a challenge.

It is our human ability to understand and empathise with one another and treat each situation with a larger emphasis on alignment to organisational goals will allow teams to move forward with decisions and not get bogged down in the politics of the ‘grey’.

5. Develop design thinking in any function, not just tech roles

Building on the previous point, design thinking is one model for driving innovation in organisations that were founded on a central focus of innovation and delivering customer value.

The principals of empathising and genuinely understanding the problem you are solving for your business will form the baseline skill for nearly all employees in the digital future.

Considering the limited digital maturity of most organisations right now, this capability is already highly valuable as businesses transform and embrace our robotic friends. Developing this skill across your teams will unlock huge value as the business navigates the future.

6. The value is in the connection

As teams shift the way they work to cater to stakeholder-focused problem solving, the obvious starting point will be effectively defining where value-creation opportunities exist.

Looking at the adoption of AI in business, the technology can’t compete with the human ability to build relationships and empathise. Yet, research indicates 83% of Australian financial leaders are worried about being replaced by AI.

What we know about humanity is we will always find a way to be relevant, and our capacity to connect is a uniquely human trait.

As long as humans have the ability to connect, build relationships and empathise, we have an irreplaceable role in all sectors of a business, whether it be in operations, marketing, HR or even the accounting and finance field.

Advancements in technology should be viewed as an opportunity to positively disrupt and transform the workplace to focus on building human connections to safeguard jobs are.

Taking teams on this journey will be the biggest challenge for business leaders. If done well, it will unleash a team’s potential and highlight the capacity human beings bring to this new age of technology.

There will be plenty of ambiguity and even more opportunity.

NOW READ: Job losses through automation: Australia’s top 10 most and least vulnerable regions

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Brad Eisenhuth

Brad is the founder and chief executive officer of The Outperformer.

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