Say Hello to Your Digital Coworkers

Remember the days when an office meant a physical location with rows of cubicles, coffee-stained papers, and clunky fax machines? Unless you entered the workforce very recently, you probably do because, let’s face it, it wasn’t that long ago. But let’s not live in the past — let’s hit the fast-forward button and zoom into the present. In the office of the present, analog is out and digital is in — and in some cases, that even includes the workers.

The rise of digital workers is significantly reshaping the landscape of today’s office environment. By leveraging artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), these programmable workers can perform numerous business tasks with precision and accuracy — and they don’t even need coffee breaks. Sounds useful, right? So, what exactly is a digital worker, and how are they contributing to a seismic shift in business operations?

The dawn of the digital workers

In the context of today’s office, the term “digital worker” refers to a software robot — an automated entity equipped with AI capabilities. These digital workers are programmed to mimic human behavior and interactions, which enables them to perform an array of tasks across various business functions and activities. IBM, with a little help from Forrester, explains it this way:

In the past, the term “digital worker” described a human employee with digital skills, but more recently, the market has defined it as a category of software robots, which are trained to perform specific tasks or processes in partnership with their human colleagues. More specifically, Forrester offers the following definition for digital worker automation: It is “a combination of [intelligent automation] IA building blocks, such as conversational intelligence and [robotic process automation] RPA, that work alongside employees. They understand human intent, respond to questions, and take action on the human’s behalf, leaving humans with control, authority, and an enhanced experience.”

IBM – What is a digital worker?

Automation in the workplace is nothing new, having fueled transformation for centuries. From 18th-century factory floors to 20th-century automotive assembly lines, automation has consistently streamlined the way work is done. Today, the capabilities of intelligent automation, which combines robotic process automation with AI, power everything from self-driving cars to financial auditing.

When it comes to the versatility of digital workers, the possibilities are endless. From data management and customer service to administrative tasks, digital workers can streamline procedures and support human workers in achieving their work goals more efficiently. Built to be fast, scalable and accurate, digital workers have the advantage of 24/7 availability and the ability to work in any number of industries and locations.

Unleashing the potential of digital workers

The value of a digital worker lies in its ability to emulate human actions, specifically in performing tasks that are typically monotonous and repetitive. By automating these tasks, digital workers free up human employees to focus on complex work that adds more value to an organization, thereby maximizing productivity and enhancing the overall efficiency of business operations.

Businesses can maximize their ROI on digital workers by allowing them to take over high-volume, time-consuming tasks — tasks like data entry or sending out mass emails, for example, that aren’t complex but take a lot of time for human workers with the knowledge and skills to do more demanding work. Automating these tasks by delegating them to digital workers boosts efficiency and enables human employees to focus on more meaningful and interesting work.

In addition to mimicking human actions, digital workers can also act as a bridge between different systems and applications. This capability is especially beneficial for processes that span multiple applications or require interaction with different departments. With digital workers, businesses can expedite these processes and eliminate silos, all while lessening the number of tedious tasks human workers need to handle.

And despite some of the more commonly cited examples, digital workers are capable of more than the most basic tasks. Take, for example, professionals in sectors such as financial services who frequently grapple with routine tasks that recur monthly or annually. Processes such as hospital billing have consistent, repeatable workflows and are perfectly suited for automation. In fact, a Pew Research Center report found the US jobs with the highest exposure to AI are budget analysts, data entry keyers, tax preparers, technical writers and web developers.

Aren’t we supposed to fight the robots coming for our jobs?

There is a long-held fear that robots are coming to take over our jobs, displacing human workers. It’s not an unreasonable concern — an Oxford Economics report suggests up to 20 million manufacturing jobs could be replaced by robots by 2030. But it’s also true that these digital workers can enhance job satisfaction and efficiency among human workers by enabling them to focus on complex, rewarding tasks. The Pew Research report noted, “US workers in more exposed industries do not feel their jobs are at risk – they are more likely to say AI will help more than hurt them personally.”

Digital workers can also provide valuable insights and data to help businesses identify bottlenecks and optimize their processes. By analyzing the performance of digital workers, businesses can improve procedures and enable human workers to be more efficient as well.

With robots replacing some jobs and enhancing others, there’s no question that digital workers play a transformative role in today’s workplace. But not only do they reshape the way work is done, they redefine the definition of “workforce.” In this new paradigm, human workers and digital workers coexist, complementing each other’s strengths and compensating for each other’s weaknesses.

As businesses continue to embrace digital transformation, the role of digital workers is likely to become increasingly prominent. According to a report by Grand View Research, the global RPA workforce is expected to expand at a rate of 38% between now and 2030, underscoring the growing importance and relevance of digital workers in the modern business landscape.

Despite the numerous benefits of digital workers, it’s important to acknowledge the challenges and concerns associated with their adoption. These include the initial cost of implementation, the need for human workers with specialized skills to develop and maintain these systems, cybersecurity and privacy risks, and the potential disruption of traditional employment structures.

As with any technological innovation, the key to overcoming these challenges lies in proper planning and implementation. By carefully assessing the potential risks and developing robust strategies to mitigate them, businesses can effectively leverage the power of digital workers to drive their growth and success.

Is tomorrow’s workforce all digital?

The rise of digital workers represents a significant milestone in the ongoing journey of digital transformation. As these intelligent entities continue to evolve and improve, they will undoubtedly play a vital role in shaping the future of work.

However, it’s crucial for businesses to remember that digital workers are not a substitute for human workers, but rather a powerful tool to enhance their capabilities. Harnessing the full potential of digital workers means striking a balance between robotic efficiency and human resourcefulness, enabling a productive, efficient, and sustainable future.   

is BPO Media and Research’s editorial director. As a writer and editor, she has specialized in the office technology industry for more than 20 years, focusing on areas including print and imaging hardware and supplies, workflow automation, software, digital transformation, document management and cybersecurity.