Insights: Leveraging the human-digital workforce for sustainability
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Insights: Leveraging a human-digital workforce for sustainability

Insights: Leveraging a human-digital workforce for sustainability

While digital workers cannot replace human workers, the future will witness humans operating side by side with their digital counterparts

Gulf Business
Narendran Thillaisthanam on leveraging the human-digital workforce for sustainability

The impact of the pandemic has turned the spotlight on sustainability. A few agile companies have adopted new tools and methodologies to adapt to this change.

Many companies who’ve embraced the new normal of remote working have introduced digital workers to support business continuity and manage productivity, profitability and efficiency during the pandemic. While digital workers cannot replace human workers, the future will witness humans operating side by side with their digital counterparts. Together, they would tackle challenges jointly, improving the quality of life of human workers and consumers.

Boosting sustainability through digitalisation

At the root of this shift is the concept of digitisation. Simply put, it is the process of converting atoms to bytes. While several companies embarked on digitisation as a reaction to the pandemic, the benefits to society are far lasting.

According to a World Economic Forum (WEF) article, digitisation has the potential to avoid an estimated 26 billion metric tons of net carbon emissions from just three industries: electricity (15.8 billion metric tons avoided); logistics (9.9 billion), and automotive (540 million), from 2016 to 2025.

As information gets digitised, the opportunity to build sustainable solutions is vast. For example, take the power sector: in most countries, the metres used to record power consumption have to be read manually, which warrants a visit to every home and office. The amount of carbon emitted by workers during this travel is enormous. However, with the advent of internet of things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI) and analytics, we can automate the entire process, thus making it predictable, cheaper, and energy-efficient.

As another example, take the case of payment processing, such as invoice or purchase order processing. These operations can be automated efficiently using a combination of digital workers that take advantage of robotic process automation (RPA) and AI and human workers. For the most part, the digital workers would front-end the operation. In such an operation, the digital workers would extract essential information such as invoice date, invoice amount, total, and taxes. The digital workers would reach out to humans for approvals (governance) or when they fail to perform the operations adequately. We call this ‘human in the loop’. One of the most significant growth areas is when companies redesign their processes to incorporate this human-in-the-loop strategy.

Forging a better future

The inclusion of a digital workforce allows organisations to function seamlessly around the clock, giving them the speed and flexibility that the traditional workforce can’t achieve as easily. As companies come to terms with the ‘great resignation’, digital workers can step up to fill in mundane jobs while humans can perform specialist roles.

A combined human and digital worker strategy can alleviate labour shortages, learning gaps and upskilling requirements. This strategy also provides flexibility and effective crisis management.

As organisations embrace a future that connects the world seamlessly with governments seeking ways to function at the highest levels of effectiveness, the role of a human-digital workforce may become more significant.

  • Technology for enriching the quality of life: Studies have shown that employee morale has increased in places that have introduced these digital workers. In situations such as call-centers where the agents are under the constant pressure of time and quality of response, the digital workers can act as a buddy. Human agents can assign tasks to these digital assistants who, in real-time, can fetch helpful information such as customer’s invoice or payment details. Doing so would free the agents to focus on customer interaction, leaving the mundane job of bringing the customer’s data or updating key information to the digital assistants. Humans are not always comfortable performing jobs that do not require any cognitive skills repeatedly. When humans offload such work to their digital counterparts, it frees up their time to focus on better and more cognitive tasks such as handling customers’ needs, negotiations, empathising with their fellow employees, etc. Essentially, the digital workers help take the robot out of humans.
  • Ensure scalability: Many industries suffer from seasonality, where demand varies from day to day, month to month, and year to year. In the West, the travel and retail industries face a massive spike in demand in December, while the market drops off a cliff in January. Managers operating in such industries are acutely aware of the need to hire temporary workers to fulfill the seasonal spike. Hiring, training, and staffing temporary workers at scale is not an easy task. Suppose demand picks up beyond the anticipated capacity. Companies may have to forego the opportunity for lack of their ability to scale up.

If staffing competent people on time is a significant challenge, letting go of those people is even more challenging. Managers know that just as these temporary workers gain crucial process knowledge and experience, they have to let go of them due to the slowdown. This is one area where digital workers can come in handy.

Once digital workers are codified to handle a process, it is relatively straightforward to scale up or down depending on the business needs. The digital workers require no further training or upskilling and once demand slows down, they can be assigned to another task. A single digital worker is typically capable of handling multiple processes in a day and can work 24×7 and on weekends. This level of flexibility is crucial to the success of organisations.

In short, organisations should look at building a human and digital workforce to bring in sustenance. An empathy-first approach to maximising human potential and transforming lives is essential, as we adopt technology to ensure progress and sustainability. Leveraging a digital future requires a principle-driven approach focusing on elevating human values as we remain mindful of the well-being and welfare of future generations.

Narendran Thillaisthanam is the CTO at Vuram


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