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As we look ahead and reimagine the future of work, augmentation of humans and technology will enable employees to create more meaningful work.

About a year ago, I took a class on Robotic Process Automation (RPA). In that class, the instructor mentioned that by utilizing RPA and reducing transactional tasks, people would be able to do more meaningful work. They would be liberated, empowered, and given a chance to grow. I became intrigued, but not by RPA. What I found quite fascinating was the idea of meaningful work. What was meaningful work? It almost sounded mystical. I have spent much time since that class researching that topic.

Meaningful Work

Whether we think about it or not, everyone wants to do meaningful work. Meaningful work is highly motivational and intensely personal, leading to improved commitment, performance, and satisfaction. It may seem that meaningful work focuses on the individual, but most people who experience meaningful work view it as a broader contribution to society. They want this work to have an impact on other individuals, groups, and the wider environment.

It is easy to assume that people are aware of the meaningfulness of their work as they experience it, but that is typically not the case. Only when individuals have a chance to reflect do they see a connection between achievements and a fuller sense of life’s meaning. Meaningfulness is a retrospective act, rather than a spontaneous contemporaneously experienced emotion.

Employees find meaningful work for themselves, but for that to happen, organizations have to create a work environment that encourages people to thrive. Companies can foster a sense of meaningfulness for their employees by doing the following:

  1. Formulate the organization’s purpose in a way that focuses on the company’s positive contribution to the wider society or the environment
  2. Demonstrate to the employees how their jobs fit with the organization’s broader purpose
  3. Encourage people to understand that while certain parts of their jobs are tedious and repetitive, those tasks contribute to the organization’s purpose
  4. Create a supportive, respectful, and inclusive work environment where employees can communicate a sense of shared values and belonging and realize how their work has a positive impact on others

Robotic Process Automation

As I mentioned earlier, what got me interested in studying meaningful work is automation. I am using automation in a broad sense of the word to encompass the integration of technology, robots, AI, and blockchain.

Not one day goes by without us hearing about the transition from an analog world with its tactile physical experiences to a digital society. Even though many organizations had been undergoing the digital transformation for years before the COVID-19 pandemic, the crisis has accelerated the transition and made it more imperative.

At the foundation of all digital transformation is automation. RPA is simply one type of automation. It is designed to automate processes that are repetitive, mundane, and manual by creating bots and programming them to imitate the keystrokes a human makes when completing a task.

What is RPA’s connection to meaningful work? It is a significant one, according to Dr. Chris Brauer, Director of Innovation in the Institute of Management Studies at Goldsmiths, University of London, who conducted a study on Augmented Human Enterprise. The study showed that RPA could free up employees to do higher-value tasks, resulting in the work that is more “human,” where employees are happier, more productive, and less likely to leave.

By transferring simple, repetitive tasks and processes to bots, employees can do the work that requires creativity, judgment, intuition, reasoning, and emotional intelligence. They can have time to develop new skills, solve complex problems, and spend more time interacting with customers. In this kind of work environment, humans and machines work together, contributing to higher engagement and work/life balance.

This was and, in many ways, still is the vision for RPA. Has it panned out that way? RPA has received a mixed response from organizations, with some arguing that RPA has not delivered on its promise to save costs. The use cases are still limited, and it is hard to measure the ROI of the RPA initiatives. In April 2019, Horses for Sources, a widely-read online publication, made a provocative assertion that RPA was dead.

RPA is far from dead. As the COVID-19 pandemic kept spreading and most employees started to work from home, technology, once again, became the front and center of our daily conversations. Some proclaim that RPA can solve tough problems when managing remote workforces, and it can be an integral part of the future of work. RPA is most definitely not dead, because, on May 1, 2020, Bloomberg reported that Microsoft is in talks to acquire Softomotive, one of the oldest RPA companies. Softomotive, based in the U.K., was originally founded in Greece in 2005.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, many organizations were reluctant to pursue RPA projects out of the fear that it was going to cause loss of jobs. The Augmented Human Enterprise study asserted that “the workforce of the future will increasingly work with automation, rather than be replaced by it.” With the havoc caused by the health crisis and the ensuing unemployment, the fear of automation may have to take a back seat as companies will have to rely more on automation in order to survive and overcome the financial difficulties.

While the employment situation seems bleak now, as we look ahead and reimagine the future of work, augmentation of humans and technology will enable employees to reinvent themselves and create more meaningful work.

About the Author

Alina Okun headshotAlina Okun is a strategist, consultant, and advisor. After completing her Doctorate in Strategy and Innovation, she started to write about the intersection of entrepreneurship, innovation, and leadership. She is researching meaningful work in the age of automation, AI, and blockchain to help CEOs create an environment where employees find meaning and purpose at work.

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