The need to digitalise business is paramount, but a new survey suggests that doubts surround its potential impact on the workforce. Negative attitudes could fuel opposition and slow introduction, with little evidence to show that technology poses a threat to employees.
At least since the Luddites destroyed textile manufacturing machinery in the early 1800s, there have been expectations in some quarters that new technology will erode jobs or rights – and this is an attitude that remains pervasive.
History demonstrates that jobs historically destroyed by technology – telephonist, horse and carriage driver, secretary – were supplemented elsewhere. A 2017 report, The Next Era Of Human-Machine Partnerships, by the Institute for the Future (IFTF) estimated that 85 per cent of the jobs that will exist in 2030 have yet to be invented.
"Yet a survey conducted in April of this year by YouGov and Handelsblatt for global technology company TeamViewer into the future of work and Work 4.0, suggests doubts remain about new working methods."
The survey sampled 3,654 employers and 5,278 employees across a range of sectors including manufacturing, construction, retail and logistics throughout Europe and Scandinavia, providing a comprehensive range of opinion.
Its key findings suggest that half of employers (49 per cent) across Europe agree that new technologies could make roles redundant, and 59 per cent believe they could meet resistance. While there was variation between countries, 58 per cent of European employees feared they might erode rights, and 63 per cent agreed that digital technologies can lead to a loss of privacy. However, on the plus side, only 13 per cent are afraid of new technologies taking over many of their tasks and making their position in its current form redundant.
“The results show that there is not so much a general rejection of technology out of fear of job losses, but more constructive feedback that management should take into consideration during the change process,” says Georg Beyschlag, TeamViewer's EVP Strategy & Corporate Development, “Employees often have very concrete ideas about the challenges that digital transformation can bring, and managers need to address those concerns by ensuring things like privacy mechanisms.”
Much of the concern around technology is generated by fear not of new work processes, but of an inability to adopt them.
According to the World Economic Forum, 50 per cent of jobs in the next decade will be changed by automation but only 5 per cent eliminated, and nine out of 10 jobs will require digital skills. At the same time, it warned that business leaders were not adequately preparing employees.
This is echoed by the Work 4.0 survey, which reported that 63 per cent of employees across the EU think digitalisation will require new qualifications, and that 76 per cent agree the use of digital technologies calls for training programmes to improve skills.
“The most important point is to take away their fear,” says Beyschlag, “Training opportunities that provide easy access to new technologies are extremely important, particularly for those generations that have not grown up in the digital world and are less used to them. After all, digital tools that are supposed to make daily life and work easier should not be complicated to use. As a software company, we put a lot of focus on user-friendliness. This also means that anyone can use our solutions without prior knowledge or programming skills.”
Digital transformation is going to have an impact on every sector, from farming to policing, but it is not straightforward, and often fails because of poor strategy and implementation. While the Work 4.0 survey reveals an awareness among European employers of the need for training (75 per cent), it does not necessarily follow that digital change will be handled smoothly, perhaps because they are too focused on the long-term benefit (for example, lower costs, 67 per cent) and not the process.
“From my perspective, the digital transformation is not just about buying hardware or rolling out new software. It is a change process that needs the attention of different departments inside a company, from management to HR to IT, and needs to include all employees,” says Beyschlag, “Field tests are a good way to achieve a high acceptance of new technology within the workforce.”
To this end, TeamViewer always suggests to customers who deploy digital solutions to make it a joint process. For example, those deploying its AR picking solutions are encouraged to evaluate the new technology in collaboration with the workforce. That way, all staff involved can experience how much improvement the new solution brings or suggest how it could be adapted so that it fits everyone’s needs.
There is rightly a sense that digital transformation cannot come soon enough if companies are to thrive in the post-Covid era. However, that won't be true if it’s handled poorly, and staff are neither reassured nor upskilled to cope with its introduction. Approach the process strategically and with care, and everyone wins.