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UK employers unprepared for the impact of automation

Future of Work|Inclusion and Diversity|Talent
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July 18, 2019

One third of UK professional workers feel their job will be automated within the next decade.

LONDON, Thursday 18 July, 2019 – One third of UK professionals (35%) expect their jobs to be taken over by automation or offshoring within the next decade1, yet only 19% say their companies have an integrated digital and business strategy in place to prepare for the impact of automation in the workplace, according to research by Willis Towers Watson.

The Pathways to Digital Enablement survey reveals the drive toward digital transformation in the UK is showing no signs of abating as the number of UK companies using workplace automation is expected to increase in the next three years.

The research found the proportion of work completed by using automation among UK companies doubled over the last three years, from 5% to 12%, and is expected to almost double to 25% in the next three years2. Additionally, 55% of organisations in the UK believe that automation and digitalisation will allow them to do the same amount of work with fewer employees in the next three years.

“Workplace automation has been growing in leaps and bounds, and all signs point toward continued rapid expansion in the coming years,” said George Zarkadakis, Digital Lead at Willis Towers Watson. “However, despite the push to digital transformation and the increasing use of contingent workers, many UK companies are struggling to integrate automation with their workforce.”

Globally, nearly all respondents (92%) expect to be using workplace automation, such as artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics, within three years. As workplace automation expands worldwide, employers expect to add more contingent workers and other “non-employee” talent to their workforces, while reducing their reliance on full-time employees.

According to the survey, free agent workers are expected to represent 5.3% of the global workforce in the next three years, an increase from 4.1% today. The percentage of workforces comprised of consultants, workers on loan from other organisations, or from free-agent platforms, is also expected to increase in three years. At the same time, full-time workers will represent 78% of workforces globally in three years, a decline from 82% today.

“As the use of contingent labor continues to evolve, it’s critical for companies to address the challenge of integrating those workers into their workforces to effectively compete for highly-skilled talent” said Zarkadakis. “We know from our research that organisations successful at integrating their contingent workers with automation and their teams are reaping benefits in the form of cost savings and less disruption in the short term.”

Although five in ten UK respondents (52%) say their companies are effective at integrating contingent workers with specialised skills into their work teams, just 6% are effective at integrating automation with talent. Only 39% are effective at retaining both employees and contingent workers with needed technology skills.

According to the survey, many UK organisations are advancing to a stage where they expect automation and digitalisation will have a significant impact on future job design and talent sourcing in the next 3 years. During this time, more than half (59%) also expect to redesign jobs so they can only be done by employees with more skills, while 48% expect to design jobs so they can be done by workers with lower skills. Five in ten (52%) expect to deploy work to other locations.

The survey also reported that three-quarters of UK respondents (75%) cited leadership development as one of the top areas requiring breakthroughs in order to successfully address the challenges of automation and digitalisation. “Leaders are the ones who must understand changing work options and sources of talent, and develop new ways to combine human workers and automation. This will involve integrating new technology and contingent talent into the workplace to change the way work is done. Leaders must also have the ability to shape the culture of innovation that will help attract and retain talent, and deliver growth,” said Zarkadakis.

About the Pathways to Digital Enablement Survey

The Willis Towers Watson Pathways to Digital Enablement Survey was conducted in March and April 2019. A total of 1,014 companies worldwide, including 32 from the United Kingdom, participated in the survey.

About Willis Towers Watson

Willis Towers Watson (NASDAQ: WLTW) is a leading global advisory, broking and solutions company that helps clients around the world turn risk into a path for growth. With roots dating to 1828, Willis Towers Watson has 45,000 employees serving more than 140 countries and markets. We design and deliver solutions that manage risk, optimize benefits, cultivate talent, and expand the power of capital to protect and strengthen institutions and individuals. Our unique perspective allows us to see the critical intersections between talent, assets and ideas — the dynamic formula that drives business performance. Together, we unlock potential.

1. Talent Perspective Survey by Willis Towers Watson, 2019.
2. Twenty-two UK professionals responded to this item, so while statistically significant it is based on a limited sample.

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