A recent study by Pew Research Center (December 2020) finds that work from home in America rose from 20% to 71% due to the coronavirus outbreak. The rest of the world also witnessed similar statistics. Furthermore, once the pandemic is over, as high as 54% of respondents would like to continue working from home. Hence, the future of work from home raises an essential question about the future of work trends. In addition to health issues, the rising role of robotic process automation (RPA) also affects the future of remote work. As often such a question fails to reach a conclusion, this write-up sheds light from the perspective of what works demand from humans and the role of automation.
The debate of the future of work has two extreme perspectives. One school of thought believes that automation will result in a massive job loss, creating mass-scale unemployment. Contrary to it, another thought is that the future will be like the past, increasing jobs due to technology. So far, this debate is non-conclusive. To make it worse, the future of work from home, during the coronavirus outbreak, has added a new dimension to this debate.
Future of work from home: Lesson from BPO job loss due to RPA
Many of the office works are back-office type. They do not need direct interaction with customers. They seem to be routine. Hence, back-office jobs could be done from anywhere, as long as you have access to documents to work with. Furthermore, certain customer care type services could be delivered remotely over the telephone. Due to the rapid progress of global telecom networks, Internet access, and personal computer density, those back-office, and customer care jobs have been transferred to less developed countries. Getting those jobs done at less cost due to wage differential has been the driver of offshoring business process service jobs. Consequentially, it has created a large number of business processes outsourcing (BPO) jobs in India, the Philippines, and other countries.
For example, India’s BPO industry employs 9 million people. Similarly, jobs in call centers of the Philippines offering customer care services to overseas clients stand at 1.7 million. People in these call centers perform routine data handling and voice service jobs. However, due to the progress of robotic process automation, these service jobs are now vulnerable. A recent Bank of America study (2021) finds that India alone will lose 3 million BPO jobs. RPA is responsible for killing most of these jobs. Unlike physical robots or workflow software, RPA automates the work process by recognizing handwritings, identifying pictures, finding and organizing data, performing data analytics, and, most importantly, mimicking how human does similar work. Furthermore, upon automating mundane office works, RPA has been progressing in taking over jobs requiring cognitive capability.
Suitability of delivering responsibilities through work from home:
The Pew Research center study finds that as high as 38% of U.S. adults employed full time or part-time can fulfill their responsibilities by working from home. Furthermore, the study also finds that the duties of workers with higher levels of income and educational attainment are the most likely deliverable from home. Contrary to 58% of those with a bachelor’s degree, the job responsibilities of 68% of employed adults with a postgraduate degree are good candidates for remote or from home delivery. Does it mean that jobs requiring higher-level education mainly depend on degree-earned Codified knowledge and skills? Their reliance on in-person interaction is relatively low.
Role of humans in work and means of earning eligibility:
In office works, human beings add value through both (i) innate, (ii) tacit, and (iii) codified capabilities. Innate abilities are vital for in-person engagement to produce and consume service. Examples of using innate abilities are capturing information from visual observation or micro dialogues. Through experience, we gather knowledge and skill in tacit form. This Tacit capability is amenable to codification in the form of data, analytical logic, rules, and standards. Apart from innate and tacit, we bring codified knowledge and skill to work. Through education and training, we gather codified capabilities. In performing any office work, we intuitively fuse these capabilities.
For example, assisting a potential customer, a bank employee explains the terms and conditions of opening an account. Subsequently, the customer provides pertinent information. Upon gathering and verifying them, the bank personnel proceeds to open the account. This work process demands both codified and innate capabilities. Examples of inherent capabilities are the ability to communicate orally; facial expressions and hand gestures also play a role. Codified capability such as knowledge about account opening rules and understanding the customers’ handwriting is also very valuable.
Transformation of the human role in remote work:
So far, we are used to having face-to-face conversations with colleagues and customers to produce services. However, due to the coronavirus outbreak, we have been compelled to avoid close physical presence. Hence, we got the option of remotely connecting from our home. Camera-based connectivity over the internet has taken over the role of physical presence. Besides, whatever the documents we need to access are available through the internet. Hand-written inputs could be provided either through scanning or taking a picture of the document with our smartphones. Smartphone has become a vital means of seeing, taking pictures, and sharing scanned documents.
Furthermore, with tablets and a stylus, we can also produce written documents in digital space. Most importantly, we have become culturally used to this change. Perhaps, for this reason, Pew Research Center finds that more than 50% of office workers find their work from home as good as working from the office.
Rising trend of Robotic Process Automation:
Making physical presence optional has been a significant change in human role in office work. Besides, the study finds that such a change has not negatively impacted their ability to produce outputs. As high as 80% of Americans working from home have been reporting their success in meeting deadlines and completing projects on time. RPA technologies comprising OCR, recognizing handwriting and signatures, image matching, voice recognition, and chatting have been opening the door of automating many human roles in working from home. Some of the immediate target automation areas of RPA are client support, sales order, and invoice processing. But the continued progression of RPA will lead to an increasing number of roles from humans which do not require in-person interaction. Hence, working from home has been a big step to get closure to losing the job to RPA.
Likely future of work from home:
Perhaps, there are three major trends in our office work. It begins with sending the existing employees home and connecting them with suitable technologies. The coronavirus triggered this trend will likely continue, as it reduces cost in many cases. For sure, there have been some limitations. The bright side is that continued technology progression and change in our work practice have been reducing them.
Once, most of the imperfections of work from home are taken care of through technologies, policies, and cultural change, the next option will be replacing existing employees by sourcing workforce from anywhere in the world. As a result, people in high wage countries will likely lose jobs to their future counterparts connected from developing countries
Further cost-cutting and technology possibilities will lead to adopting robotic process automation. Already, RPA has started taking over back-office routine jobs from the human. The continued development of RPA will accelerate it in taking over jobs being delivered from home.
Hence, the future of work trend is to transfer office work to home, followed by outsourcing them for taking advantage of the wage differential. Eventually, the ultimate step is to let RPA take over. Hence, the future of work trend is to make work from home an intermediary step to let robotic process automation take over an increasing number of service jobs from humans.