To Optimize Work Automation, Get Beyond “Robots Taking Our Jobs”

Automatic teller machines (ATMs) got a lot of recent attention, with 2017 being the 50th anniversary of their introduction. On June 27, 1967, Barclays Bank installed in London a machine that allowed cash withdrawals using paper vouchers. The British Press called it the “robot cashier.” London bank tellers so feared losing their jobs that they sneaked out and covered the keyboards with honey.  

The False Simplicity of “Automation Replaces Jobs”

Work automation is often framed in simple terms – how many jobs will new technology replace?  On June 14, 2011, U.S. President Barack Obama stated that ATMs allowed businesses to “become much more efficient with a lot fewer workers.” Actually, the number of teller jobs increased with the number of ATMs. In 1985, the U.S. had 60,000 ATMs and 485,000 bank tellers. In 2002, there were 352,000 ATMs and 527,000 bank tellers.  

James Bessen explains why more ATMs spawned more teller jobs, in his book, Learning by Doing.  “The average bank branch used to employ 20 workers. The spread of ATMs reduced the number to about 13, making it cheaper for banks to open branches. Meanwhile…the number of banking transactions soared, and banks began to compete by promising better customer service: more bank employees, at more branches, handling more complex tasks than tellers in the past.”

In 2018, personal, devices and cloud-based financial transactions are further changing the work of banks. Has technology finally replaced tellers? No. In May of 2017, “while more than 8,000 U.S. bank branches have closed over the past decade (an average of more than 150 per state) and more than 90% of transactions now take place online, the number of U.S. bank employees has remained relatively stable at more than 2 million.”

Optimizing the Work, Not Replacing the Job

Understanding and optimizing work automation requires more nuance than “How many jobs are replaced?” For example, look at how the work inside the teller job evolved:

“Where the bank branches still stand as a brick-and-mortar presence, the tellers have started coming out from behind the window with smartphone or tablet in hand to help customers help themselves. But with thousands of those branches closing, you’re more likely to find a teller online now. They’ve become the human face of an increasingly virtual world. It’s a role exemplified in Bank of America’s new experiment with hybrid banking, small unstaffed mini-branches that offer a direct link to tellers via video conference.”

The ATM story is an important parable for business leaders, workers, and policy makers. It vividly shows why simplistic ideas like “technology replaces human jobs” are simultaneously so enticing and misleading. Solving the organizational, social, and strategic challenges of work automation demands a pivotal future capability – optimizing the constantly-evolving options that combine human and automated work.  

A Better Way: Deconstructed Work and Return on Improved Performance (ROIP)

Automation will certainly reduce some work, but it will also create new work.  To accomplish this, it requires reinventing the concept of a “job.”  

Deconstruct the Work

First, take apart, or “deconstruct,” jobs into work elements, like tasks.  Some tasks, such as processing cash withdrawals, are very amenable to ATM automation. Others, such as counseling customers whose accounts are frozen due to overdrafts, are not. Generally, an ATM can do tasks that are more repetitive, independent and physical, but not tasks that are variable, interactive, and mental.

Such deep insights about the work require listening to the workers, not replacing them. The Atlantic interviewed Desiree Dixon, a member-service representative at the Navy Federal Credit Union in Jacksonville Florida:  “…when you walk into a Navy Federal, [the staff] really understands what you go through as a military spouse or your family being in the military…When your husband or your sister is out to sea and they’re deployed, and you’re trying to get business taken care of…Navy Federal really understands those things.”

Leaders who try to automate pivotal human tasks create costly problems that far outstrip the cost savings that were the simplistic siren song to replace tellers with ATMs.

Find the “return on improved performance” (ROIP)

Work performance pays off differently in different tasks, and in different strategies and contexts. Some tasks create value by avoiding mistakes and meeting a fixed standard, such as correctly verifying that an account has sufficient funds. In other tasks, every performance increase creates incremental value, such as recommending banking services, where there is added value in every increment of knowledge and enthusiasm. Automating tasks where ROIP comes from avoiding mistakes means that the upside may be vital, but limited. Automating tasks where ROIP comes from increasing performance may have a huge upside, but often involves augmenting humans with smart technology, not replacing them.  

Leaders too eager to save labor costs by automating teller “jobs” will miss these nuances, and squander opportunities.  

Optimal Work Automation Reinvents Jobs

When it comes to automation, optimal solutions should emphasize reinvention rather than replacement. Case in point: Today, former “tellers” have become the human face of an increasingly virtual world  It’s a role exemplified in Bank of America’s new experiment with hybrid banking, which are small unstaffed mini-branches that offer a direct link to tellers via video conference.

Reinvention often creates opportunities for humans to develop much higher ROIP: “As [automation] capabilities continue to grow, customers at retail branches will spend more time interacting with machines for their day-to-day needs, while branch personnel will move from behind the counter and focus more on complex transactions such as coordinating loans for homes or small businesses.”

Leadership as Perpetual Work Reinvention

If only it were as simple as replacing jobs with robots! Work optimization is hard work, but carries big rewards.  

Organization leaders may be understandably enticed by simple solutions, and HR leaders are pivotal influencers to make them smarter. HR leaders, HR systems, and HR analytics must redefine ideas like “replacing jobs” with better frameworks like “reinventing work.” Reinvention will be constant, so leaders and workers must collaborate with trust and transparency, to anticipate – not avoid – opportunities, and embrace perpetual work “upgrades.”  

HR leadership may make the difference between bank tellers pouring honey on ATM keyboards versus online bank tellers who are augmented and empowered by technology.

Author Photo
John Boudreau |
John Boudreau is professor and research director at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business and Center for Effective Organizations, and Boudreau is the author of two forthcoming books, “Human Resource Excellence” with Edward E. Lawler III and “Reinventing Jobs” with Ravin Jesuthasan.