A vintage toy robot is standing against a purple background, symbolising automation and digital co-workers.
Image: © freedom_naruk/Stock.adobe.com

What could the dawn of digital co-workers mean for humans?

13 Jan 2021

Chaz Perera of Roots Automation argues that robots will serve to help human employees rather than displace them.

Remote working and four-day weeks aside, one of the biggest topics of conversation when it comes to the future of work is automation. Some believe in its potential to transform working life for the better, while others worry that relying on robots could ultimately minimise the role of humans.

But what if the robot simply became another one of our colleagues? Chaz Perera, co-founder and CEO of Roots Automation, is confident that digital co-workers will be important for businesses of the future.

His team provides these co-workers as a service for various office jobs, from “clicking buttons and performing data entry” to interpreting contextual cues and external factors for decision making.

‘Smart companies of the future will seamlessly integrate powerful AI digital co-workers with creative human employees’

Can you explain what a digital co-worker is?

Digital co-workers are essentially pre-trained bots. The bots that Roots Automation offers come pre-programmed with the knowledge, skills and experience required to perform a variety of roles commonly found in HR, insurance, healthcare, and financial services, such as underwriting assistants, claim adjusters, patient intake specialists, bill and accounts receivable clerks and HR associates.

The bots learn from their human counterparts through interactions and, as a result, become more efficient and gain a better understanding of the business they support.

Chaz Perera of digital co-workers provider Roots Automation is wearing glasses and smiling into the camera.

Chaz Perera. Image: Roots Automation

Do digital co-workers make sense in a remote working environment?

In almost all businesses, some tasks are repetitive and mundane. In HR, the repetitive activity typically includes employee onboarding and offboarding and reviewing résumés to search for the best applicant for a vacant position.

While these functions of the job are critical, they aren’t the most thought-provoking. In a remote work environment, we need to keep employees excited about their projects. One way to do this is to introduce digital co-workers. By removing the mundane, low-energy tasks from employees’ plates, they’ll have more time to focus on work that excites them.

One notable advantage to remote working is that the talent pool has been opened to candidates the world over, not just those in the same geographic location. So, remote employees could benefit from a revamped hiring process.

Automation can do much of the heavy lifting by noting the desired criteria for the job vacancy, understanding the most valuable experience to look for and using this knowledge to filter through the volume of applications to find the great candidates.

It could also act as an IT help desk, schedule training and arrange exit interviews and holiday allowances.

Actions like onboarding and offboarding employees require more than HR, so a digital co-worker can also alleviate non-HR personnel time.

What are the biggest benefits of digital co-workers, in your opinion?

The technology we have at our fingertips today with video conferencing and instant messaging has made this forced remote working period manageable; we feel more connected than ever. However, for the success of the team and wider business, it is crucial to maintain team spirit and company culture.

The main benefit of digital co-workers is that they can motivate staff and keep company culture without sacrificing productivity.

Introducing automation will help to complete high-volume and low decision-making tasks, which is a massive step in the right direction to keep productivity up.

The admin tasks are essential to the smooth running of a business but are not the areas that excite, motivate or get employees noticed for promotions and pay rises.

Allowing bots to pick up mundane tasks supports your employees immensely by permitting them to spend more time focusing on building relationships, providing excellent customer service, complex problem solving and further progressing in their careers. These are the reasons they choose to work for your company over your competitors.

What are the challenges businesses should be aware of?

Non-technical individuals often have an innate hesitancy when it comes to the idea of automation. Nearly every business professional will agree that systems, processes and automations are needed, but the act of creating and maintaining them is a different story.

We have found two main misconceptions keeping people who need automation the most from giving it a try. First, they argue that automation is too complicated if you are not technical. Second, they believe the cost is simply too high. The solution to both of these concerns is cost-effective, plug-and-play automation.

What does that look like? The automation would be pre-built, not created from scratch, meaning accessibility for anyone and everyone. Since business processes change, the automated systems would adjust accordingly. Also, the tool or platform would require zero technical knowledge or experience, again opening up accessibility.

The biggest hurdle for implementing digital co-workers is the hesitancy, but this can be mitigated once employers understand it’s not a hands-on task for them and they don’t need to have a highly technical background to have success with automation.

How would you advise businesses to introduce digital co-workers into their workplaces?

First and foremost, bots will change your workforce positively. They should exist to improve human skills like creativity, divergent thinking and novel problem solving as these skills will become increasingly crucial in helping to engage and keep customers.

Also, it’s important to understand that AI doesn’t replace workers; it replaces skills and mundane tasks and helps humans make more efficient and transparent decisions. AI works best as a collaborative function because it amplifies human capabilities such as speed, efficiency and accuracy.

Those that deploy AI mainly to displace employees will only see short-term productivity gains. Businesses will see the most significant results when humans and bots work together and build on one another’s strengths. Humans provide the social skills, leadership qualities and creativity while AI provides speed, scalability and quantitative capabilities.

Any type of business requires both of these skillsets, which is why the smart companies of the future will be the ones that can seamlessly integrate powerful AI digital co-workers with creative human employees.

Another piece of advice is to shape your workforce with AI – don’t just be shaped by it. There’s a tendency to think about how AI can plug into your existing business structure to make things more effective and efficient.

This is certainly a good use of AI and can provide a tremendous value proposition for businesses in precise lower-order ways, but it’s a small benefit compared to another way that you can think about AI. What if automation could change your entire work structure? Instead of merely maximising the existing system, what if you allowed automation to change the structure itself?

Lisa Ardill
By Lisa Ardill

Lisa Ardill joined Silicon Republic as senior careers reporter in July 2019. She has a BA in neuroscience and a master’s degree in science communication. She is also a semi-published poet and a big fan of doggos. Lisa briefly served as Careers Editor at Silicon Republic before leaving the company in June 2021.

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