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The “A” Word: How to Talk About Automation with Your Team

Help employees embrace change and empower your workforce to make the most of new technologies

Automation Inquiry

warehouse worker wearing a headset scanning a box

Maybe you’ve reached a point in your business where automation seems inevitable. You have to scale up to keep up, and you need new technology. We advise companies on this transition, and it can start with smaller changes than you might think. But if you haven’t broken the seal yet, you might be wondering: how do I discuss this with my employees?

Automation, people and process are always intertwined

Doesn’t every sitcom ever have an episode where a workplace brings in a robot to do the work, and in the end man triumphs over machine? Is automation replacing humans and killing jobs? That’s certainly a disputed claim, but robotics and other automation does reduce the need for employees in certain areas, even if gains in others offset the losses.

I’ve had aspects of my job outsourced or automated, and to be honest, getting that news wasn’t super fun. It sounded like, “I don’t want you complicating your job with your thinking.” On the other side of the changes, I realized I had more mental energy to devote to the aspects of my job that only a human could do, and that turned out to be a good thing.

If automation is not necessarily a dehumanizing creativity killer, how do you introduce it to your employees to minimize resistance and encourage their cooperation? Because you’ll need their cooperation if the systems are going to work.

This isn’t a complete guide to those conversations, but here are a few guiding principles.

Empathize to supersize

Think about your job. You use a hundred little processes that no one else knows about, because you developed them over time to get the job done. How well would you handle being told that you had to throw them out and start over, and that you had no control over the changes?

Your employees are no different. They have ways of getting their job done, refined by repetition, and it might be hard to let go. A sense of acknowledgment—a “thank you” for what they’ve accomplished with the tools they had at the time—along with the opportunity to offer input can help grease the wheels of change. They can also provide key guidance as automated processes are developed if you ask them what they do and how.

The important thing is to consider what motivates you, because that’s probably what motivates your employees.

What employees want

Your warehouse workforce may not rush to tell you about their feelings. That’s probably not your culture, and that’s okay (provided, of course, that they’re not acting out by setting fires in the break room). To tap into what your employees want from their job, follow the MAP from author Daniel Pink:

  • Mastery: the feeling of doing their job competently
  • Autonomy: the feeling of being trusted to make the decisions that affect their day-to-day work
  • Purpose: the feeling that their work contributes to something of value

These are powerful motivators. To help make sure they’re working for you as you implement new technologies, here are a few questions you might ask yourself:

worker picking an order in a pick-to-light system
  • How can I find out how well my employees currently experience these three things in their job?
  • If I want my employees to feel empowered to pick up the new technology and run with it, what would the training look like?
  • What does communication look like between management and people in the trenches? Do employees have a way to ask questions or give feedback?

You have no shortage of books, programs and services available to you that target employee engagement. However you go about it, cultivating mastery, autonomy and purpose will help make your team more agile in implementing new processes. For us, that means making ownership a critical part of our culture.

Culture is king

What’s the current state of your company culture? It’s wise to find out. Walk around. Use employee surveys. Unfortunately, there’s no quick and easy rehab for major problems. Ping-pong tables are no match for entrenched disrespect, mistrust, finger-pointing and bullying. To be blunt, if your culture sucks, you have problems automation won’t solve. How do you correct course, or make a generally healthy culture even better?

Here’s what’s working for us

Cisco-Eagle is a proud ESOP company, which stands for Employee Stock Ownership Program. Because every employee owns stock, we all look forward to long-term benefits when the company succeeds. In the day-to-day, this looks like a company-wide awareness of how we’re doing overall, with a widespread motivation to do what’s best for the company.

Besides the ESOP, Cisco-Eagle practices Open Book Management. This is exactly what it sounds like: every employee has access to all financial information minus specific salaries. When we do well, the success flows to everyone in the company—directly, monetarily—through a structured bonus program.

If you introduced automation as a tool that will reduce costs and increase throughput and revenue, to the benefit of everyone in the company, do you think your employees would slow the process with passive-aggressive foot-dragging? Probably not.

When you treat people like adults, you might be surprised when adults show up to work for you—and start taking responsibility for their part in your company’s growth. That will only ease your transition to automated processes. Because the best way to bring in the robots is to treat your human workforce like they’re humans.

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