I have been reading many stories about organisations using Robotic Processing Automation (RPA) to enhance their existing IT landscape, close product gaps, increase efficiency and other goals. These are all worthy reasons to wade into the world of RPA, but a comment from an organisational leader that I read recently reminded me of a lesser mentioned, perhaps overlooked benefit of RPA, employee well-being.

We live in an age awash with mindfulness techniques, mental health days, and modern benefits like flex time which all revolve around the idea that it is important to recognise employee well-being for a variety of reasons. But what does Robotics Automation have to do with employee well-being? In some ways it seems like organisations are interested in the well-being of robots more than people.  And aren’t these BOTS just here to take away our jobs?

“its is about enhancing the experience and putting people where it matters, so automation is highly used”

In a nutshell RPA, when done correctly, can remove the need for some employees to engage in tasks that are largely repetitive but perhaps high value.  By doing this, these employees can instead focus on other, higher value tasks that more fully use their skill set.  I was very privileged recently to meet with Tammy Ryder, General Manager of People and Culture Central for Coles and discuss this topic with her.

I was interested in her view on this topic as she runs Coles HR Shared Services as well as People and Culture Digital Transformation. She was deeply involved in the rollout of SAP SuccessFactors, integrated with Phenom for Talent Acquisition where much of the RPA solutions implemented were used. As part of that project Tammy implemented RPA in the form of several BOTS to close some gaps and bring greater efficiency to the whole process. In discussing this topic, she said that one of her team’s key learnings was “… it is about enhancing the experience and putting people where it matters, so automation is highly used”.

Tammy mentioned that early on there was a misconception at Coles that RPA automation would take away jobs or replace people. Tammy and her team were careful to select automated tasks that were important to the business because they are related to critical processes like pay or hiring but were also highly repetitive.

These choices meant that these workers could use the time that automation frees up to instead train team members, interact with customers and other higher value tasks for example, however the BOTs were also providing a valuable service. She said “[Coles employees] want to do worthwhile work, they want to do work that makes them feel that it has real purpose and meaning behind it.”

“83% [of Australian consumers] are prepared to pay more money for products or services that enhance their feelings of well-being”

While well-being itself as a concept is a hot topic in HR circles these days, trying to quantify the business benefits of well-being can be challenging for HR professionals. Tammy mentioned that when meeting with the executive board, they were, not surprisingly, interested in facts and figures more than feelings.

So how does an HR executive get funding or support for programs like this that support well-being?

We discussed what metric could be used when proposing one of the benefits of RPA as being related to employee well-being. At present there isn’t any such industry metric and it is challenging to articulate the benefits in numbers, but she was optimistic that over time this kind of metric could be developed and socialised, especially given the strong support for well-being and well-being programs at Coles like R U OK day. A recent Australian consumer survey showed that “83% are prepared to pay more money for products or services that enhance their feelings of well-being”, so the desire for support of well-being programs is real.

I asked Tammy what were some of the challenges in implementing effective RPA? She said there were challenges around understanding how the technology works of course, but an unexpected challenge was the misperception and stigmatism among employees that “BOTS are going to take over the world” and people would lose their jobs.

Therefore, being clear that, in reality, the aim was to have “people where it matters” so that employees could instead focus on high value work was key for success. Tammy’s advice was to carefully examine if the proposed RPA solution had any measurable benefit, not just automation for the sake of automation. She said that in the end her team got very proficient at looking for tasks that had a clear decision tree, and minimal human centric intervention.

In conclusion, RPA can be a strong contributor to employee well-being by reducing manual, repetitive tasks, allowing employees to focus on high value work and potentially reducing employee turnover, which is a useful metric to justify such a program. The key, as always, is not to assume that any given automation is a benefit just because it automates something. Additionally, leaders need to be sensitive to employee’s perception that BOTS are here to take away their jobs.

With the right discussions, and communication, RPA can be a benefit to the organisation, to employees and even to customer’s well-being. I, for one, embrace the arrival of our robot friends and look forward to less drudgery.