How automation is redefining the way we work

The future of work is here—and it looks remarkably different to any prior period. Banner: Shutterstock/Zyabich
How automation is redefining the way we work

This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders  from around the world and all parts of society  address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.

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The confluence of cultural and pragmatic changes required by the pandemic, the accelerated emergence of new technologies, and worker empowerment means a new reality for businesses and governments around the world. The future of work is here—and it looks remarkably different to any prior period.

Many people have reset their view of work and its place in their lives. Productivity no longer happens in a set place or time, and skill building is more valuable to workers than longevity. According to a recent Gartner survey, 65% of workers said the pandemic has shifted their attitude toward the value of aspects outside of work, and 56% said this period has made them want to contribute more to society.

To be clear, these findings reinforce that people still want to work—they simply want to contribute more value, feel connected to their company’s mission and purpose, and be enabled with technology that helps them succeed. The Great Resignation is splashed across headlines around the world, but this era is more aptly named as the Great Migration, in which workers feel freedom to explore new roles or new fields of interest altogether.

A single resignation is a significant loss for a company. It not only takes time to hire and train a new employee, but the opportunity costs associated with that position must also be considered.

Some thought leaders are advancing the idea that the way we define jobs and work should be deconstructed, to alleviate the strain caused by the global talent shortage and re-create work that is “both more attractive to talent and of greater value to the organization”.


Read more: Automation Shouldn't Always be Automatic: Making artificial intelligence work for workers around the world by Daron Acemoglu


Automation, artificial intelligence and productivity

Being the result of many different factors, it is difficult to explore solutions to tackle the impact of the Great Resignation in the absence of a multi-stakeholder approach. Furthermore, organisations need to find fast solutions to tackle this crisis and protect their employees. New technologies, such as Robotic Process Automation (RPA) can be leveraged to help improve job satisfaction, foster collaboration and belonging, and prevent burnout.

RPA comprises digital assistants—software robots—that automate routine tasks that take up much of a worker’s time. Most organisations have begun their automation journeys, and in a few short years hybrid human-digital workforces will be the norm. By working side-by-side with their software assistants, sharing tasks and handing work off, workers gain time back for creative, strategic and collaborative thinking. In tandem with transformative technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and cloud computing, automation helps make businesses more resilient, improves agility and reduces risk, and generates tangible benefits like freeing up time and money to invest in growth and well-being.

A recent survey commissioned by UiPath revealed that 62% of executives at large United States companies are struggling with the current labour shortage. As a result, 78% of them are likely to invest or increase their investment in automation to manage the impact of higher-than-normal turnover rates. According to the survey, 83% of executives say their companies currently invest in and/or use automation or AI tools. And about 7 in 10 executives plan to increase their investment in automation solutions in 2022 compared to 2021.

Moreover, today’s employees are highly invested in a company’s mission and purpose. By fostering open and transparent communication regarding automation initiatives, organisations can enable innovation and encourage a whole new set of ideas and processes that individuals and their teams can take on. Engaging employees early on with automation and AI deployments is vital to create the space to address possible concerns and questions about the technology, get familiar with the benefits and learn more about how they can become involved.

 As businesses worldwide become automation-first, connecting automation’s transformational potential beyond efficiency and productivity toward how it aligns to corporate responsibility issues like transparency, waste reduction, energy consumption, health and well-being, and sustainability is critical to successful implementation.

The vital role of upskilling

Workforces enabled with automation and AI can discover new opportunities and gain a competitive advantage, thereby attracting new talent. The UiPath survey found 86% of executives believe automation will enable their employees to focus on more creative work—and spend less time on mundane, repetitive, time-consuming tasks. As a result, 85% say that incorporating automation and automation training into their organisation will help them retain employees and attract new talent.

The survey also revealed 1 in 3 executives cite lack of skills training as another reason people leave their jobs—yet currently, only 51% of organisations offer automation training. Along with lower compensation and lack of opportunities to progress, when training on advanced technologies like automation isn’t offered by businesses it can lead to lack of productivity on the job and talent migration.

That said, organisations seeking to retain workers and attract new employees in a highly competitive labour market should look at digital upskilling as a crucial source of retaining talent. According to the Coursera 2021 Impact Report, 81% of learners on Coursera in emerging markets reported achieving career benefits such as earning a raise or promotion or starting a new career, while 71% of learners overall reported achieving those career benefits.

As businesses worldwide become automation-first, connecting automation’s transformational potential beyond efficiency and productivity toward how it aligns to corporate responsibility issues like transparency, waste reduction, energy consumption, health and well-being, and sustainability is critical to successful implementation. To maximise impact, organisations should prioritise investments in upskilling and reskilling to ensure an inclusive transition toward the future of work and create high-value employment opportunities.

Learn more about the OECD is preparing for Future of Work

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Tackling COVID-19 Future of Work Artificial Intelligence