Two-thirds of businesses used automation to respond to pandemic

27 November 2020 5 min. read
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A new study has illustrated just how much the Covid-19 pandemic has hastened leaders’ plans to automate their organisations – with more than two-thirds deploying technologies such as Robotic Process Automation in their response to the crisis. However, many firms are failing to plan for the need to manage cultural change or reskill their workers to get the most out of their new capabilities.

It has long been forecast that Artificial Intelligence and automation will bring about a workforce re-alignment, the scale of which having not been seen since the industrial revolution. Jobs across the industrial spectrum have been transformed through automation, as firms look to minimise time spent on repetitive tasks while boosting productivity by reallocating resources to value-adding work. While this was already taking place at pace, however, since the advent of Covid-19 the adoption of automation has only accelerated.

For example, according to one recent survey of more than 250 senior banking executives in the UK, the Covid-19 crisis is spurring incumbent banks to shed costs and increase automation at speed, leading to surprising breakthroughs in agility and innovation nous. According to the survey, almost 80% of banks surprised themselves with how agile they were in making changes such as cost-cutting and digitalisation. Now, a new paper from Deloitte has found that across the broader economy, two-thirds of business leaders have already used automation to respond to the impact of the pandemic itself.

Technology portfolio of respondents to support intelligent automation strategy

To obtain a global view of how organisations implement and scale intelligent automation technologies, Deloitte surveyed 441 executives from 29 countries and a wide range of industries. According to the results, 68% of respondents have used automation to directly address Covid-19 related problems, something which has seen a dramatic rise in the number of organisations worldwide now using automation technologies – such as robotics, machine learning and natural language processing. This has ballooned from 48% in 2019 to 73% in 2020.

Justin Watson, partner and leader of Deloitte’s robotic and cognitive automation practice, said, “Automation has been a lifeline for businesses during the pandemic – allowing for rapid increases in processing capacity, new processes to support the response, increasing productivity and accuracy, whilst also improving the experience of customers and employees. As organisations scrambled to support home working en-masse and provide Covid-secure work sites, automation took the strain to ensure business continuity. For instance, by triaging requests to allow contact centre agents to manage the higher number of calls and emails, or accelerating the validation of loans from financial institutions.”

Deloitte found that he number of organisations deploying automation at scale was already growing before the lockdown months – and has tripled in the space of two years. Around 13% of leaders said their organisation has implemented over 50 automations, up from 8% in 2019, and 4% in 2018. In the months ahead, meanwhile, the firm expects that investment in automation technologies will continue to flow with the direct aim of bolstering organisational resilience.

Top barriers to scaling intelligent automation

Looking at Deloitte’s latest poll of CFO sentiment, business transformation is the number one area for business investment in the next 12 months. Two-thirds, or 65%, of UK CFOs expect to increase investment in organisation and business process improvements, such as restructuring, streamlining and automation, over the year ahead. For example, as Covid-19’s disruption is likely to leave a lasting effect on how work is performed considering the widespread remote working and the configuration required to secure worksites, increasing automation among the workforce looks certain.

At present, 78% of firms said they are implementing Robotic Process Automation (RPA) and 16% plan to do so in the next three years. Today, 23% workers have seen a change to their role and ways of working because of the implementation of these technologies, while 10% have had to retrain because their role has been affected by automation. This will rise sharply in the near future if executives do make good on their plans to deploy more RPA – however, problematically most bosses have not weighed up how to reskill their workforce. While training and resistance to change remain key barriers to automation projects, 58% of organisations have not yet calculated how their workforce’s roles will change.

Dupe Witherick, Senior Manager in Deloitte’s robotic and cognitive automation practice, added, “Leaders must keep in mind that successful automation is not only about new technologies, it's about people. A worrying number of leaders are yet to consider how their workforce will be disrupted as a result of automation. Understanding this will serve two benefits - firstly, to highlight the skills that workers will need to ensure new technologies are rolled-out and managed in an efficient way and secondly, to pave the way to change workers’ perception of automation from a rival to an asset.”