Since humans began working in groups, one of the biggest obstacles to progress has been getting people to do the more monotonous tasks. This understandable resistance to tedium has led to dreams of robotic assistants not subject to human limitations to perform certain tasks — as well as fears of robots taking over our jobs. A 2018 Pew Research study showed most people worried about the adverse consequences of automation and potential loss of jobs. But today, a few altered circumstances have created a renewed need and appreciation for automation — and the benefits, opportunities and growth it can provide.
We know the story, of course. Pandemic hits, workers go home, businesses that were not prepared for digital transformation scramble to catch up. And somehow, they make it work. So, when it becomes possible for workers to come back to the office, they ask: Why? In addition to discovering that it was possible to do many jobs remotely, they’d also discovered work-life balance. When some business leaders demanded their employees return, many chose to seek other employment.
The Great Resignation, as it became known, isn’t over. A PwC survey of 52,000 global workers shows one in five plans to quit their job in 2022. While salary is the top reason, it is far from the only reason —50% cited choosing when to work and 47% cited choosing where to work. And “I find my job fulfilling” was the second-most popular answer, right behind financial rewards, which brings us back to automation. A Salesforce study found 89% of workers are more satisfied with their job and 84% are more satisfied with their company as a result of using automation in the workplace.
What does all of this mean for the hybrid office? It’s probably here to stay. Tech research firm Foundry found 94% of organizations shifted to some form of hybrid work structure during the pandemic, and 72% of IT decision-makers feel the transition has created a positive shift in the remote and hybrid work mindset.
So, let’s recap. We have organizations that need to make a hybrid work model work, staffing shortages, skilled workers who want flexibility and job satisfaction, and a digital-first technology landscape with greatly improved intelligent automation powered by artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML). How can you put all of these factors together to make hybrid work work better? Let’s look at some areas that are ripe for automation.
For any organization, content management can be a major pain point. From documents to file storage and everything in between, there are endless amounts of different types of content that must be organized for optimal productivity. For many companies, the transition to a remote or hybrid office model was the impetus for digitization. Digital file access was the only way many workers could continue to do their jobs, and so the process of digitizing documents and transitioning them to an electronic content management solution (ECM) or document management system became a priority. However, managing the data, ensuring it is always accessible and up to date, can become an arduous job. Additionally, simply scanning and filing documents leads to siloed, redundant data that is difficult to search and organize.
This is where automation comes in. AI can be used to recognize keywords or images in documents and tag them accordingly, and it can also generate metadata for your documents. This can enable documents to be automatically sorted and filed, making it easier for users to search for specific items. Other automations can be created to notify specific users when important documents are added to the system, and it’s possible to automate entire workflows so that tasks can be assigned, tracked, reviewed and approved with minimal manual intervention.
The recruiting and hiring process these days is frequently supplemented by AI, as the online screening process can be automated, incoming resumes and applications can be scanned for keywords, and interviews scheduled automatically. Post-hire, the onboarding process is also a prime candidate for automation. Onboarding is one of the most important processes in a hybrid office, where new employees may not meet their coworkers face to face for months, if ever, and it’s possible they’ll never set foot in a company office space. So, even though it may sound counterintuitive, automating the onboarding process helps ensure all new employees feel connected to the company no matter where they work. Onboarding software can automate tasks such as sending welcome emails, scheduling onboarding calls, and creating employee profiles. Once onboarded, automating communication channels can help ensure that all employees are kept up to date on company news and announcements. Chatbots, Slack integration, and even email automation can be used to keep teams connected.
Employee productivity tracking can be another important process in a hybrid office. While “employee monitoring” sounds distasteful to some, there is a real need for tracking employee productivity when workers are distributed in multiple locations, and an automated tracking and analysis tool can help identify areas where improvement is needed. Don’t just leave it to the software, though — schedule regular check-ins with employees to discuss their progress and give feedback. This will help not only track employee productivity, but the efficiency of your software and systems. Finding that workers are getting bogged down in one step of an automated workflow process can identify problem areas you need to troubleshoot.
Finally, don’t forget about the smaller day-to-day needs. Automating tasks such as expense reports and time off requests can help save time and money.
Getting an organization’s data, personnel records and other critical information digitized and into automated workflows is great. But it does mean that a lot of valuable data is sitting in the cloud or on on-premises databases that still need to be accessed from outside the office. Network security is tough enough when everyone is in the same building. A hybrid environment, where employees may be working on multiple devices in multiple locations, requires additional attention as more devices are introduced to the network.
With automation, you can scale your network security without increasing the headcount, allowing you to handle increased connectivity while minimizing the risk of cyberattacks. Day-to-day tasks, such as network discovery, which identifies hosts and services as well as their locations can be automated, as can vulnerability assessments and logging. Automated network monitoring allows the rapid detection of threats and enables fast response times. Authentication is another important security measure — setting login parameters like length and type of password as well as requirements for multifactor authentication and changing passwords can all be automated, ensuring employees adhere to predetermined guidelines without hands-on intervention from IT staff.
Backup and disaster recovery is also an essential process to ensure business continuity. Automating backups is an absolute must; the possibility of human error is not something you want to gamble on when it comes to company data. Backup software solutions can automatically apply encryption protocols, and cloud-based storage ensures these are kept up to date.
Does automation solve all hybrid challenges?
Automated processes have advanced significantly over the last few years, but they’re still not quite up to human levels — thank goodness. As quickly as AI, ML and robotic process automation (RPA) are coming along, humans still have a role to play. Whether or not we go willingly into the next evolution of work, the hybrid office is here, and it needs humans to make sure it runs smoothly. Humans choose the software, humans create the rules, and most importantly, humans interact with humans.
What the last couple of years have taught us is not how much we don’t need humans, but how much we do. A couple of years of isolation and separation have created an increased understanding of the value of collaboration. But it’s also taught us that collaboration can take place in separate rooms, or buildings, or continents. And it’s that lesson that has shown us the true value of automation — not to replace humans in the workplace, but to supplement them. With the right automation, we can focus on the more complex tasks; ones that leave workers feeling more fulfilled and inspired. The tools automation provides — better collaboration, improved security, less time spent doing meaningless tasks — all go a long way toward creating a better hybrid work environment.
Jennifer Healy is Director, Marketing Strategy and Programs, Dealer and Partner Channel at Ricoh North America. With 28 years of industry exposure, first with Lanier and then Ricoh, she has largely focused on building innovative Marketing and Sales campaigns, programs, tools, and resources in various markets. Over the past eight years she’s been leading and building a successful channel marketing strategy that has positioned Ricoh as a true partner to its dealers, making its powerful marketing apparatus an extension of the dealers’ business. Healy was recognized by CRN as Woman of the Channel in 2021 and 2022.