Even before the social distancing mandated by COVID-19, work from home (WFH) was a growing trend in many industries, with as many as 4.7 million workers in the US working from home at least periodically1. I’ve been working from home for several years now, and I believe high-speed connectivity, virtual collaboration tools, and other technologies have made WFH easier. Now, COVID-19 has thrust masses of new workers into this WFH arrangement impacting meaningful in-person connections with co-workers, direct reports, and customers.
I’ve always debated the balance of cost vs. efficiency in the choice between a virtual meeting versus a face-to-face meeting. COVID-19 has added a new factor to this in-person vs. virtual balance in meetings – that of safety. To deal with the challenges brought forth by this new element, companies will have to be creative, resourceful, and rely on new tools and technologies. A few technologies that will become more useful as well as essential in this new business environment are Automation and Artificial Intelligence (AI).

Automation, AI, and the new world

Already, the impact that solutions such as Robotic Process Automation (RPA) have had on business has been nothing short of transformational. Companies are eliminating massive amounts of manual human effort with RPA, freeing up their time to focus on more productive things like customer service.

AssistEdge from EdgeVerve has eliminated 80+ Mn hours of human work at hundreds of companies.

One of the most important elements in deploying RPA technology is assessing where to use it. There are countless places where RPA makes sense, among processes that are manual, repetitive, and high volume. Besides, there are business functions that involve significant human creativity and decision making, which currently makes them less viable for RPA. However, as RPA technology evolves and more AI is infused into robots making them ‘smarter’; more and more types of business process, even if they involve human-like decision making, can be automated.
The tricky ones are business processes that fall somewhere in the middle. These processes can only be partially automated and still need a human involved – not because of the cognitive advantages the human offers, but their personal connections. For instance, there may be functions where you can service your customer with a robot, but the personal connection of a human may create more value.

Analyzing processes to assess where they lie in the robot vs. human balance is a big part of RPA initiatives. In fact, at EdgeVerve, our solutions include technology solely designed to help customers make these process automation decisions.

If you observe at a macro-level how RPA and AI are trending in various industries, you get a sense of where this is going. Businesses are gradually calibrating to an equilibrium of humans and robots in their various departments. Business functions will eventually settle into a state where humans and robots work seamlessly together, capitalizing on the benefits of both for the best outcomes – whether it be customer services, costs, or productivity.
At EdgeVerve, we envision a world where the two forces – the human worker and digital worker (robots) – converge to co-create the future worker, enabling a synergy of people, process, and technology. We call this convergence Automation Singularity.

Moving towards Automation Singularity

So, what does this have to do with working from home? Over and above the advantage of robots as 24×7 workers that are more accurate and efficient, is the fact that they don’t transmit biological viruses. And that’s a key advantage for businesses grappling with the ‘new normal’ of COVID-19. You don’t have to worry about robots working in close proximity, taking their temperature, or a testing regimen for COVID-19. Corporations right are now making tough choices about who really needs to go back to work in the office and will likely continue to grapple with these decisions.
In my opinion, the shift in the virtual vs, in-person WFH balance affects the human vs. robot RPA balance. Processes that were previously borderline opportunities for automation may now be fast- tracked. The reduced risk and increased safety associated with robots will shift many processes to become more viable candidates for RPA. The shift to WFH in business will accelerate RPA adoption and get us faster to Automation Singularity.

Three ways Automation Singularity can help companies in the COVID-19 crisis

Companies are likely to embrace Automation Singularity to improve worker safety and effectiveness by:

Task automation can significantly reduce the need for on-site employees. Consider the case of a procurement or finance or legal function in most companies. One of the critical areas that require employees to sit in an office space is document processing. These can be simple documents such as invoices to be reconciled, or complex documents such as contracts that need to be analyzed and edited.

Automation tools, especially Intelligent Automation which reads and analyzes a document as a human would, can significantly eliminate the need for humans to be physically located with documents. In an automated scenario, a fewer employees
might work in an office gathering and ingesting physical documents for smart robots to process. The function of the human here would be to analyze exceptions, perform reconciliation, or clarify things the robots missed.

For example, in the Purchasing function portions of the procure-to-pay lifecycle like the creation, approval, monitoring, and reconciliation of purchase orders can be automated with AI and RPA and humans can do the final verification.

Twitter has announced that its employees can work from home forever2 – a scenario more and more companies are considering. As WFH becomes the new normal, many on-site processes – like recruitment, onboarding, training, etc. – may shift right to employee doorsteps.Remember that on-boarding session you went through on your first day, where you met with representatives with IT, Human Resources, and Accounting to learn how to do your job? In the future, these may be robots that are included in a box of things delivered to your house on your first day of work. I’m referring of course to digital (not physical) robots that will help get many of the things done for you that you used to go to the office for.

RPA, combined with AI, could also replace human intervention in processes that require less personal interaction, such as IT support. Humans could get involved only when technical issues are escalated, and a majority of this could be handled from a remote location. Only when there is a hardware issue the human gets physically involved will it dramatically reduce their human to human touchpoints, thereby improving their safety.

As more employees work from home, they will continue to need responsive IT support to be able to do their jobs effectively. AI will play a big role in automating IT support for WFH employees. For example, AI can be used to monitor server logs and systems diagnostics to predict when systems might go down and automatically intervene. RPA robots can also automate many IT support functions such as setting up new logins and re-setting passwords, ensuring seamless access, and connectivity.

While the RPA market growth and the shift to Automation Singularity were already happening, COVID-19 has definitely given WHF a boost. Even companies that earlier had RPA lower on their priority list, possibly because they had few people and thus a lower ROI, may start embracing this new phenomenon.

It’s incredibly hard to predict what the post-COVID-19 business environment will look like, but the democratization of Automation Singularity appears inevitable.


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