Co-Exist With Robots: How to Compete With Technology in the Age of Automation

Silhouette of business man command automation robot arm machine technology , industry 5.0 , artificial intelligence trend concept. Sunrise twilight background.

Silhouette of business man command automation robot arm machine technology , industry 5.0 , artificial intelligence trend concept. Sunrise twilight background.Jiraroj Praditcharoenkul—Getty Images

As technology, including robots, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and other forces change the nature of work, employees will need new skills to adapt to shifting roles. Research firm Gartner predicts that employees who regularly update their skill sets and invest in new training will be more valued than those with experience or tenure. But it’s not going to be easy.

The World Economic Forum’s “Future of Jobs 2018” report estimates that, by 2022, more than half (54%) of employees will require significant skills updating or retraining. More than one-third (35%) will need about six months to get up to speed, while nearly one in five will require a year or more of additional training.

And employers might not be much help. A 2019 global survey of employers by consulting firm Deloitte found that 86% of respondents rated the need to improve learning and development (L&D) as “important” or “very important.” But just 10% felt ready to “very ready” to address that need. As digital transformation affects so many businesses, a 2018 Gartner report found that just 20% of employees have the skills they need for their jobs now and in the future.

For workers who are concerned about remaining marketable, this raises a number of questions about where they should invest their efforts.

“In almost every job, you need a different set of skills than you did five years ago, and there’s no reason to believe that number’s going to get smaller,” says Brian Kropp, the Arlington, Virginia-based chief of human resources research at Gartner. Employees who are serious about remaining marketable must take it upon themselves to remain in demand in the marketplace.

Finding the focus

Identifying skills with emerging demand can begin with simply keeping abreast of job ads, says career expert Susan P. Joyce, publisher of, a Marlborough, Mass.-based website for job seekers. As certain tools and technologies become more widely adopted in a given field, the skills required to use them are going to be listed as requirements for certain positions, she says. “If something’s required now that wasn’t a year ago, that’s a sign,” she says.

Similarly, watching new developments from technology providers in your sector can also help keep you ahead of the curve, she says. For example, if you work in human resources, keeping an eye on how performance management platforms or applicant tracking systems are evolving may help you spot where you need to upskill.

Many of those skills will be in the digital arena, says Tracey Malcolm, global leader, Future of Work, at Willis Towers Watson, an insurance and advisory company based in London. So, in addition to being comfortable with technology, you’ll likely need to become comfortable working with technology, she says.

The World Economic Forum report says that technology design and programming are increasingly in demand. But, not everyone has to be a data scientist or coder, Malcolm says. You may have A.I.-powered tools operating within your existing software or cloud-based platforms to help you identify productivity improvements or automation opportunities. You need to be adept at using and interacting with those tools, and then reading, understanding and applying the data they provide, she says.

“As we look to have our performance augmented with different forms of technology, that is going to require us to actually think in very forward-looking ways,” she says.

Getting comfortable with data isn’t just about looking at dashboards or spreadsheets. You need to be conversant enough in the data that relates to your job that you can think about hypotheses and scenario planning, Malcolm adds. For example, when you see that productivity has slowed or that you’re not meeting other metrics, you need to be able to think about the sources of the data and circumstances that may have affected the outcome, then think about how various changes could improve results.

Soft skills matter, too

In addition to technology, digital, and data acumen, soft skills are also going to be increasingly in demand. As workplace environments experience fast-paced change and computers add a more straightforward, just-the-facts element to work, the ability to communicate, collaborate, and effectively work with others will be essential, says labor ethnographer Karla Erickson, a professor of sociology at Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa.

“Being a team member, being able to anticipate, moving smoothly through complexity when the unexpected arises, those are the kinds of tools that I think people should be working on,” Erickson says.

In addition to technology-based “co-workers,” employees are also going to need to be flexible to accommodate workplaces that include more contractors and contingent workers.

The World Economic Forum report predicts great demand by 2022 for “’human’ skills such as creativity, originality and initiative, critical thinking, persuasion and negotiation.” Emotional intelligence, complex-problem-solving, and flexibility are also important. Workshops, training, mentorship, and other forms of skills development shouldn’t overlook these areas.

Get ready to grow

Kropp and his team estimate that, by 2024, 64% of typical managerial tasks—filling out expense reports, monitoring dashboards, etc.—will be automated. Successful employees will use that newfound free time to focus on high-value activities. After all, this is technology fulfilling its great promise and untethering workers from rote tasks. But workers must use that time wisely, Kropp says.

“So, you want to be looking at what you do within your job that actually generates insight, generates ideas, new approaches, new solutions, things that are tried for the first time, and you need to ask yourself the question, what are things I can do within myself, in terms of developing skills, capabilities, knowledge, that helps me focus on those things that are more insights, rather than tasks?” he says. When you can answer that, you will have found the areas least likely to be eliminated because of technology.