How Should You Automate Workers? | NY Times Columnist Kevin Roose

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James Kotecki
Jun 16 · 4 min read

“Often the parts that seem boring to a manager are actually kind of the fun parts for a worker.

“Involving people in the process, asking them, ‘which parts of your job can be augmented, how would you like to be augmented in your work?’ rather than just imposing the stuff from the top down seems to be a better path.”

- Kevin Roose, NYT tech columnist & “Futureproof” author

So, you want to add some AI and some automation to your workforce — but you don’t want to seem like a corporate super villain.

Then you might want to listen to New York Times technology columnist Kevin Roose.

You may have heard Kevin on the podcast The Daily or read his column that sold for over half a million dollars as an NFT.

He’s also the author of the recent book Futureproof: 9 Rules for Humans in the Age of Automation.

The book gives advice to workers who might be automated. But what advice would Kevin give the managers doing the automating — the people actually implementing AI?

From our conversation, here are three automation lessons for leaders.

1. Involve Workers

Without worker buy-in, things can go badly.

“The case study that I learned a lot from in the book is what happened to this General Motors plant in Lordstown, Ohio in 1970,” says Kevin. “This was the most technologically advanced car factory ever made. It was the factory of the future, had all these robots zooming around.”

“And managers thought, ‘Workers are going to love this. It’s going to make their jobs easier. They’re not going to have to lug around heavy machinery. They’re going to be more supervisory rather than doing a lot of the grunt work themselves. So what’s not to love?’

“They implemented these systems and workers rebelled. They hated it. It turned them into basically machine minders. They were not involved, they had no input into the process.”

Kevin says the workers “went on strike to protest not their pay, not their benefits, but the dehumanization of their work that was made possible through automation. And they won.”

Ultimately, the company created a system for workers to advise management on automation and “shape how it was being implemented.”

That collaboration between management and workers “made things go so much more smoothly for them.”

Kevin thinks that what happened in the 1970s is happening today to knowledge workers.

“We’re at this point in a lot of white-collar workplaces now where automation is being implemented from the top down,” he says. “I think if companies, aren’t careful, they’re going to see exactly what GM saw in Lordstown in the ’70s.”

Photo by Lenny Kuhne on Unsplash

2. Don’t Overdo It

Kevin points out that automation projects can become “expensive mistakes.”

“There have been some sort of prominent cases of companies actually de-automating after they over-automate because they missed the people and the people’s jobs turn out to actually be more complicated than they thought.”

He suggests that “managers and executives need to be really careful in not over-automating.”

3. You Could Be Automated, Too

“Some of the biggest areas of susceptibility, researchers have found, are actually jobs in technical, analytical fields, middle management jobs,” says Kevin. These are “some of the same people who might be choosing which automation systems to deploy.”

“Those jobs can be, in some cases, partially or fully done by automated systems. So there’s this fallacy out there that everyone else’s job is susceptible to automation, but my job is not.

“And I think that we are all susceptible, no matter what we do.”

Kevin says that if managers aren’t careful in how they automate, history might repeat itself — and not in a good way.

“There’s a lot of evidence, actually hundreds of years of evidence, about how this can go wrong. About how workers can respond to new technology in ways that make businesses less happy and productive. It matters how you implement this stuff, not just when and what.”

“We know from history that these things don’t go smoothly. The original Industrial Revolution eventually did make all our lives better and easier and improve standard of living. But there was about a fifty-year period where it was pretty disruptive. There were labor riots, there was a lot of worker exploitation.”

“It took decades for those issues to get ironed out,” says Kevin. “And so the hope is that this time can go a little more smoothly.”

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