Blog | 16-12-2020

How to manage employee resistance to automation

written by: Putu

We are currently in the midst of the ‘Industry 4.0.’ era wherein the implementation of smart technologies continuously changes the way we work and live. Devices and machines communicate with each other through the Internet of Things, automation processes become smarter and autonomous and technologies such as Artificial Intelligence become part of daily life. These developments impact all types of industries and economies worldwide and are needed by organizations to face the rapidly changing consumer demands.

As with the previous industrial revolutions, resistance exists against these new technological developments, especially amongst people who fear that new technologies and machines, such as robots, will infiltrate their workplace and make their jobs unnecessary. This blog discusses what causes resistance towards new automation technologies, and how resistance to change can be prevented or taken away.

Why resistance against technologies?

People have always experienced fear for the unknown. As psychology suggests, people like to be able to anticipate consequences. Once they cannot anticipate consequences, they have trouble developing a vision of what life looks like on the other side of a change. They start to feel insecure, powerless and threatened by new (technological) developments, which can lead to resistance to change.

As we have seen throughout history, technological developments have always met resistance from the people. For example, during the first industrial revolution the ‘Luddites’ appeared; a social movement of textile workers who feared and resisted the industrial and technological progress. The Luddites showed their resistance by destroying textile machinery as a form of protest.

Because fear and resistance to change have always existed, it is no surprise that in this Industry 4.0. era, many people fear the rapid development of technology. This fear and resistance can often be found in production facilities where automation developments such as the implementation of robots are imminent.

Even though it has been researched that automation and robotics have a positive impact on productivity, create a safer working environment, improve working conditions and eventually lead to an increase in labor demand, many employees still fear that robots will take away their jobs and chances of finding work, which is why resistance towards these new automation technologies remains. Employees cannot anticipate the consequences of automation and often feel threatened and powerless. Hence, if an organization is planning on implementing robotics and other automation technologies in their production process, it is important to take away employee resistance to ensure a smooth operation and satisfied employees. But how can you manage resistance to change?

Managing employee resistance to change

Introducing new automation developments to your employees should be treated like any other organizational change. It is important to apply change management from the very beginning. After all, you want to prevent resistance to change as much as possible, rather than taking away the resistance once it already exists.

Communication is key

The most important part of change management is communication. A mistake many organizations make is completely leaving employees out of the loop. This lack of communication increases fear of the unknown, but also leaves legitimate questions unanswered and concerns unaddressed. Hence, transparent communication from the beginning of the change process is key. It is important to consider the following:

  • Communication about the change at hand should be straightforward, truthful and timely
  • Explain to your employees what change is happening and why. Help your employees understand why this change is important for your organization (e.g. robots to improve production times to remain competitive in your market). Show them the benefits of automation, now and in the future
  • Communicate how it will affect and benefit your employees’ jobs. Help employees identify what’s in it for them. For example, when implementing robots in your production process, do not only explain the features, but demonstrate how the robots will benefit your employees. Show that the robot takes over the repetitive, heavy tasks and enables your employees to use their skills for more important, challenging and less boring tasks.
  • Use different ways to communicate the change, both formal and informal, to ensure all employees receive the relevant information. Think of face-to-face meetings, email, company intranets etc.
  • Make sure that managers and team leads are on board and support and communicate the change openly and positively. Employees take cues from their leaders and if they resist the change, it is likely your employees will too.

Engage your employees

Besides transparent communication on why and how the change is happening, you should also engage your employees in the change process. Researches show that when it comes to implementing change, engaging your employees in the change process is of great importance:

  • Employees who are actively involved in the process feel heard, valued, empowered, cared for and part of a team, reducing their resistance. Encourage your employees to voice their opinion, concerns and questions and respond honestly. If possible, include end-users in decisions, even when it is just through a survey. People who feel heard and empowered are more likely to view a change in a positive light.
  • In addition, engaging your employees can give you valuable information on any thoughts, concerns and suggestions employees have. This may help pinpoint the roots of your employees’ resistance and show you where the change process may need adjusting.
  • Once the change is implemented (e.g. the installation of a robot in the production process) employees can give you feedback on its performance and how it can be improved.

Training to overcome fear and develop new skills

Automation developments often result in changing jobs and roles. Employees may believe their skills are not relevant or sufficient for these changing jobs, making them feel powerless, threatened and increasing their resistance to these changes. In addition to clear communication and engaging your employees, it is important to help your employees through the change process and ensure they are ready for the future. If possible, invest in upskilling and training sessions for your employees to ease the transition and make employees feel more positive and confident about the implementation of new automation technologies.

Of course, to be able to achieve this level of open communication and engagement to take away resistance, it is important that organizational leaders themselves have a clear understanding of what automation means for their organization and how it will impact their employees. Once that is clear, you can start working on your change management plan to make sure that the process of implementing new automation technologies runs in the smoothest way possible, with the least resistance.