Automation was always coming to the world of work but COVID-19 has accelerated the pace of change. Employers and employees will have to adapt once the pandemic is over.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the world seems to have ground to a halt. But in reality, many aspects of life are going faster than ever. Scientists hunting a vaccine are trying to compress years of work into months, for example. Meanwhile, in the world of work, changes that were expected to unfold slowly have been hugely accelerated.


One of those is the shift to artificial intelligence and automation. In a 2017 report, management consultancy McKinsey suggested that a third of US jobs would be replaced by automation by 2030 but that timetable might have accelerated by the lockdown in recent months.

Amazon uses thousands of robots to haul products in its warehouses | Source: AFP

Three reasons why automation is on the rise


There are three main reasons why the pandemic has boosted workplace automation. The first is health and safety: having more robots in the workplace means that more of the human workers can be safe at home. Those who do have to be in the workplace can maintain social distancing more easily.


In South Korea, as well as around the world, robots are being used to dispense hand sanitizer, measure temperatures, and disinfect hospitals. These robots help minimise exposure for patients and staff.


Second, automation helps to maintain business as usual, at a time when workers need more space and many are unable to work because of illness or because they are in a high-risk category. This has been the case for Amazon and Walmart, for example, both of which are using robots to wash floors and keep warehouses operating with fewer human workers. Meanwhile, technology firms such as Twitter and Facebook are increasingly using AI to monitor and remove online content – a role previously done by humans.


Finally, consumer preference is a driver of automation. As the world comes out of lockdown, social distancing will remain important. In a recent survey, 87% of shoppers said that following the pandemic they would rather shop somewhere with contactless or self-checkout options. Similarly, the flexibility of AI tutors might ensure that people continue to prefer them to the human kind, even after the pandemic.

Photo by Jonas Leupe on Unsplash

Robots are here to stay

These changes are likely to be permanent. A 2012 study found that easily automated jobs vanished during the 2008 financial crisis and never came back. Once robots have been installed to disinfect hospitals, ferry packages, or provide checkout services, it is typically much cheaper to keep them than to go back to human workers.


For businesses, that will provide an element of future-proofing. It is possible that there could be future COVID-19 outbreaks and those companies will be better able to handle a future lockdown with less disruption. What works for industry leaders like Amazon often filters down to other businesses, which will displace more workers.


As a society we need to begin thinking about those displaced workers, because this pace of change will exacerbate the problem. A new social contract is needed to ensure these people have a safety net while they look for work. However, many of the jobs for which they are qualified are gone for good, so we also need options for them to upskill and reskill.


This applies to workers whose jobs have not been lost, too. Working alongside robots or AI is a skill in itself and companies will need to train their workers to get the most out of their roles, as well as to emphasise the skills that are hardest to automate – specifically, soft skills.


The changes that we have seen in recent months are not a surprise. They have been predicted by business thinkers for years. What is unexpected is the speed with which automation has expanded. We need to start thinking now about what the world of work will look like afterwards.


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