Prior to 2020, it seemed the biggest threat to jobs came from artificial intelligence. Indeed, it was rare for a week to pass without a headline claiming that automation would replace XX million jobs, as study after study seemed to come up with a different total number.

It seems more likely that job displacement will occur, rather than out-and-out replacement. Robots will fulfil more menial tasks, allowing people to focus on more ‘human’ elements of their job roles. At the other end of the scale, robots will be able to solve complex problems beyond the capability of the human brain, enabling us to reach new frontiers of innovation. This in turn creates more opportunities for skilled workers.

Undeniably, thousands will need to be reskilled, but it’s possible that automation will create more jobs than it destroys – and 2020 has certainly shown us how possible it is for humans to adapt to sudden changes. The World Economic Forum predicts that there will be a net positive in the displacement of jobs, with 75 million being replaced by 133 million new roles.

So, do we have anything to fear from automation and AI?

Disrupting a legacy

It’s important to consider that the robot revolution will not happen overnight. This will be a slow and steady upgrade of our existing legacy systems, which sees businesses adopt AI at different rates and in different areas of their organisations. Often, these legacy systems can get in the way of AI adoption and will slow down the whole process.

In order to have efficient AI systems, businesses need clean and useable data, as well as software able to read and analyse data in different formats. This all takes time and careful consideration, and can involve the upskilling of existing employees.

More new roles

Research completed in 2019 indicated that nine in 10 employers actually increased their headcount because of automation. 16 per cent of those businesses have expanded their IT teams to help oversee new processes and systems – good news for those in the tech sector.

Organisational leaders may look to their existing technical staff to help retrain and upskill employees, creating more opportunities and a chance for IT leaders to have a broader influence on the business.

Upskilling becomes a priority

Some positions will be replaced entirely, and lifelong learning will become the new normal as employees and organisations make the most of new technology. The events of 2020 have shown just how quickly humans can adapt to changes in the workplace – and how vital the human touch is, even when technology becomes more prevalent.

Future important skills will be things like communication, empathy and critical thinking. This is particularly important for leaders, who will need to manage their teams with agility and vulnerability in very stressful circumstances.

It’s also important to consider who will be responsible for upskilling workforces displaced by automation. Low paid workers are thought to be the most at risk, and these employees may not be able to afford formal retraining. Governments and organisations will need to step in.

Risk vs reward

While automation will be a threat to some employees, it will provide benefits to others. Because processes are more efficient, they can get more work done in a shorter timeframe. Job satisfaction may improve, especially if they can work on more interesting tasks, however greater productivity may lead to shorter working weeks – with possible pay cuts as a result.

2020 has changed the way we work and will likely have an effect long into the future. As we consider how automation may change our working lives, it is important to think about the long-term impact upon individuals, businesses and society in general. There is a way that all of us can benefit from automation.