Workplace automation in Singapore expected to double in next 3 years: Poll

A cleaning robot (left) and a human-operated cleaning machine at NUH, June 27, 2016.
A cleaning robot (left) and a human-operated cleaning machine at NUH, June 27, 2016.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Workplace automation is expected to double in Singapore in the next three years, according to a survey by advisory, broking and solutions firm Willis Towers Watson.

Findings from the 2017 edition of the survey - The Global Future of Work - suggest that automation is expected to account for an average of 29 per cent of all work done by firms in Singapore in the next three years. This projection represents a considerable increase from the current rate of using automation, which stands at 14 per cent, and 7 per cent three years ago.

While automation continues to play an increasing role at the workplace, the survey found that organisations see the main goal of implementing automation-related technology, such as the use of artificial intelligence and robotics, as improving human performance and productivity.

Said Darryl Parrant, talent and rewards leader, Singapore at Willis Towers Watson: "It's important to note, though, that while we will see an increase in machines and robots in the workplace, they will not replace humans. Instead, the benefits of automation will increase workforce and workplace flexibility, change the way work is performed, and reduce costs." However, Mr Parrant noted that not all of the organisations surveyed were ready to address the growing challenges that automation brings.

With new jobs such as robot trainers and data scientists coming to the fore with automation, Willis Towers Watson suggested that firms deconstruct existing jobs based on their component tasks and identify the responsibilities that can be automated.

From there, firms can then identify and seek out candidates with the right capabilities for the tasks they need to perform, it added.

As jobs which require digital-focused skills - such as data mining, financial technology, digital marketing and cloud computing - are in high demand, 57 per cent of companies here expect to pay higher salaries for such employees.

Thus, 53 per cent of employers globally are planning to take steps towards addressing talent deficits through workplace planning and action, with 45 per cent already assessing talents to identify "skills and wills" gaps, and 44 per cent identifying the emerging skills required for the changing business environment.

This may bode well for employees in Singapore as government-driven initiatives, such as SkillsFuture, focus on the upskill of talent through development and training offerings, Willis Towers Watson said.

At the same time, the move towards automation will also enable flexibility and create new opportunities to draw from alternative labour pools to fill in the skills gaps, it added.

Interestingly, the survey found that less than 10 per cent of organisations globally are actively taking steps to prepare for these organisational changes, with companies still having a lack of clarity over who will lead and drive the change agenda internally, and whether human resource departments will need to expand their capabilities to drive talent management practices in the changing economy.

With 89 per cent of companies expecting managers and leaders to drive change in three years, efficient leadership and communication is imperative to lead the change around how people and automated workers will work together, while articulating an organisational roadmap that alleviates fears of labour substitution, said the survey.

The Willis Towers Watson Global Future of Work Survey was conducted in November 2017 and polled a total of 909 companies worldwide, including 507 from the Asia-Pacific.