Robots don't have to take our jobs

“One in three bankers worry about robots stealing their jobs. Here’s why their fears are spot-on.” 

That’s the stance taken by Walden Siew in this recent (and excellent) article. I can’t say I disagree with him, but I don’t believe that is the only possible future. As an innovator in the FinTech space, I take a slightly different view. Robots (i.e., automation in its many forms) will take over many of our repetitive tasks—but if we approach this correctly, it will free people up to do what we’re best at: meaningful, creative, strategic work. 

Free Time

A couple of months ago my wife and I sat down on a Friday evening to watch Blue Bloods (there's just something about the family crime unit that I enjoy). I noticed we only had a few episodes left until we finished the series, so naturally we had to stay up until we were done. Around 1 a.m. we found our way to bed on the heels of a great Blue Bloods finale—which would have been just fine if we didn’t have a 4 and 2 year old that usually wake up around 6:30 a.m. The next morning I was unceremoniously ripped from my sleep and stumbled bleary-eyed down the stairs to fill up a couple of bowls of cereal while trying to remember why I had wanted to finish Blue Bloods so badly.

The reality is, we—humans—do very poorly with extra time. In fact, once we feel like we have extra time we typically go on to lose more than we planned on. If you don’t believe me, just think back to the last time you opened Facebook just to check on a friend and then were surprised when, 10 memes, 5 stupid videos, and a lot of scrolling later, you realize you just burned 45 minutes.

So, what does this have to do with robots stealing bankers’ jobs? Well, I’m glad you asked. 

When we no longer have to worry about "the repetitive tasks”—because they’ve been automated—it frees us up to spend our time more strategically. The “free” time that robots will give us can be a powerful enabler for strategic thinking.

But there’s a huge, glaring problem in this utopian idea. Per the example above, people are not good at dealing with extra time. We aren’t trained or practiced at using it effectively. Strategic time, by its very nature, is the time when we’re notdoing the repetitive tasks—kind of like free time. Strategic time is the first thing to come off your calendar when a fire arises. But it’s the time for us humans to do what we’re great at. It’s time for thinking creatively, for identifying and solving problems, for taking the offensive instead of just putting out fires. 

If we want to avoid a future where people are being replaced by robots we need to start giving ourselves more strategic time now. We need to get better at putting our strategic time to good use. Not tomorrow, right now. The future of robots or computers taking jobs is already here. The greater difficulty in front of us today is learning how to take advantage of the time savings that robots give us. I don't think this means more time at the beach!

What are we going to do with the time savings provided by these robots? More importantly, how do we prepare for that?

Managers, Step It Up

In order to prepare for the future automation of job responsibilities, managers need to start thinking "how can I help my team become more strategic?” If managers can do this well, it puts their teams in a position to become even more effective when “robots” are able to overtake some of their more routine tasks. 

For example, if the CEO sees that Team X’s value increases as they spend more time on strategic work, the CEO will view the automation of Team X’s non-strategic tasks as an opportunity to give Team X more time for strategic work—thus improving their output and value. This creates an environment where “robots”—or automation—actually supplement and enhance we humans, instead of a doomsday scenario in which robots take over the world (or actually replace human employees).

Pro Tip: If you’re a manager, consider asking yourself “What responsibilities of my team members are likely to be automated in the near future?” Write those down. Next ask yourself “Which of my team members are most likely to be poorly affected by that automation?” Write those names down. Now ask yourself “How could [insert names of people affected by the upcoming tech] use what they know today or their innate skills to help us be more strategic as a group? What skills can they learn between now and the time this new tech will affect their job?” Once you’ve identified these things, find a way to help your team members. If you don’t know what sorts of tasks are being automated, this infographic from McKinsey & Co is a great place to start learning.