How to tame Robotic Process Automation (RPA) anxiety

Robotic Process Automation should be a positive – a chance to reduce drudge work. But when some people hear RPA, they think job loss: Here are 5 ways leaders can manage fears
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The phrase Robotic Process Automation (RPA) itself can breed anxiety. It sounds a bit dystopian: Here come the robots – and when they arrive, their first order of business will be to take over our jobs.

The truth about RPA is not necessarily so bleak. For starters, there is no army of physical robots marching toward your office. But it is a form of automation that, if deployed with any kind of significant scale, will very likely impact some people in your organization’s day-to-day job duties.

Done right, this should be a positive – a chance to reduce drudge work and use the reclaimed time and energy for more strategic responsibilities. But that doesn’t happen without proper planning and investment, and people know it. As a result, RPA – like AI and other forms of IT automation – can cause anxiety and fear.

Dismissing RPA anxiety will likely make it worse, as silence from leadership creates a breeding ground for rumors and pushback.

CIOs and other leaders have a responsibility to help manage that fear by communicating clearly and sharing tangible plans for how RPA will benefit people. Dismissing it is likely to make it worse, as silence from leadership creates a breeding ground for rumors, pushback, and other issues. We’re here to examine some of the fundamentals of managing automation-related anxiety when you’re building an RPA program.

[ Related read: Robotic Process Automation (RPA) by the numbers: 14 interesting stats. ]

First, though, some added context: We’re approaching this generatively, meaning that the advice assumes you are not using RPA to eliminate people’s jobs but to reshape them in a positive, productive manner. If you are eliminating positions, that’s another story. The latter still requires strong leadership, so let’s dig in.

1. Make sure people understand what RPA is

As we noted above, RPA has a bit of an image problem in that it includes two words – “robot(ic)” and “automation” – that can spike job security concerns just on their own. If you make sure folks understand what RPA actually is and how it works, though – it’s just software – then you have taken the first step to reduce anxiety.

“It’s all about education,” says Gustavo Gomez, CEO at Bizagi. “RPA is about giving people time back and helping them to do less admin and more of what they do best: Communicate, collaborate, and serve customers.”

Here’s a primer that can help you explain the technology to others in the organization: How to explain Robotic Process Automation (RPA) in plain English. You can’t skip this step, or you’re allowing misconceptions to fester.

“Business leaders should invest time and effort in educating employees about automation before beginning any automation initiatives,” says Cosette Dwyer, product manager, RPA, at Laserfiche.

[ Confused about the difference between RPA and AI? Read: Robotic Process Automation (RPA) vs. AI, explained. ]

2. Bring people into the RPA process early

Don’t build an RPA program first and explain it to people later. Bring employees and stakeholders into the process early and often.

“Effective change management requires all employees involved with the initiative to participate in early-stage planning, giving them an opportunity to offer input and feedback,” Dwyer says. “Clear and consistent communication about the reasons for automation as well as how it will make employees’ lives easier is crucial to managing automation anxiety.”

You need to be able to explain the specific use cases and goals for your RPA program.

That second piece is key: You need to be able to explain the specific use cases and goals for your RPA program. Ideally, one of those goals is to improve (rather than eliminate) people’s jobs.

“The key is to communicate that for most people, the impact of automation will simply be to eliminate their most mundane work – to take away the worst part of their day,” Gomez says.

Stressing the importance of communication can feel like pat leadership advice, but it can’t be overstated when it comes to RPA and other forms of automation. In its absence, fear (and sometimes loathing) can thrive unchecked.

“Clear and consistent communication is imperative,” Dwyer says. “RPA initiatives will modify users’ workdays, so business leaders need to consider how people will be affected and whether they need training or educational opportunities to transition to a new or modified role.”

3. Be specific about RPA’s upside

Dwyer taps into a crucial pillar of that communication: It’s one thing to tell people – insist, even – that RPA will improve their jobs. It’s far more powerful to show them how, or to at least light the paths to new or expanding opportunities that will result from automating some of the monotonous tasks that currently eat up chunks of their time.

“Leaders should recognize that employees whose workdays will be affected by automation will benefit from training and educational opportunities to develop skills that the company needs,” Dwyer says. “Create pathways for employees to transition to roles that require their unique skill sets. Process automation initiatives have the potential to eliminate manual tasks so that employees can reclaim time for more fulfilling, higher-value work.”

Dwyer has seen several Laserfiche customers undertake large-scale process automation initiatives, such as automating accounts payable, without eliminating a single person’s job. “In these situations, employees successfully transitioned into another role or took on new projects,” Dwyer says.

That scenario – saving money and reclaiming time with RPA without downsizing the team – requires full buy-in and appropriate planning and investment from leadership.

You’ll also need evangelists. Here’s how to get them:

Kevin Casey writes about technology and business for a variety of publications. He won an Azbee Award, given by the American Society of Business Publication Editors, for his story, "Are You Too Old For IT?" He's a former community choice honoree in the Small Business Influencer Awards.