Manpower versus machines
21 Jul, 2022

As South Africa’s unemployment rate skyrockets, investing in human assets should be a vital part of business strategy that can lead to an overall improvement in the social economy. While it’s both trendy and essential to upgrade your business with technology, it shouldn’t be at the expense of losing staff unnecessarily.

Downsizing office space and the jobs within a company are a reality for many, and sadly more casualties may arise through the prolonged pandemic and the pedantic pace of economic recovery, but there are business practices to consider for those who remain.

Ideally no jobs would be lost at the ‘hands’ of technology

It is of course possible to run a highly functional, technology-based business that efficiently relies almost wholly on said technology, makes wonderful profits but doesn’t create any jobs. This business model benefits shareholders but doesn’t support employment and it breaks the ecosystem of potential customers.

It will depend on the industry and offering, but an issue that could arise is if we have these massively efficient companies with no employees, who is going to be able to afford to buy any of the products produced? The challenge is to deliver products or services in a cost-effective manner, employing technology as required, while avoiding demolishing employee headcount.

A hybrid of technology and humans (or machines and manpower) is the sustainable solution

Let’s look at technology integrated into food shopping as an example. In establishments like Amazon Go, the shopping experience is on a new level in terms of efficiency, but how many cashier jobs could there have been, if artificial intelligence wasn’t the preferred employee? Cashiers arguably would do just as good a job, even if their employment comes with risks like employee fraud, customer complaints and higher employee costs; many employees will in fact be model citizens.

The hybrid solution of some cashiers and the availability of self-check-out options, as seen in UK food stores for some time like Sainsburys or Tesco, are good examples of a blend that works, if technology must be integrated at all. If you prefer to speak to someone, you can, or you can swipe your essentials, pay, and move on quickly, interacting with no one. Many shops -food-based or otherwise- have gone as far as giving up physical store locations, relying solely on delivery to customers.

Consider that all banks are today more technology-focused than ever before, with increasingly limited human interaction at the branches. This can be problematic for those who rely on traditional methods of banking, such as going in to speak to a cashier. One can use technology to do so many transactions these days from banking to shopping to virtual administrative tasks, and the list goes on. But while this makes life significantly easier for some, others are left behind or excluded altogether.

Morality is caught in the middle

Technology-enabled services have improved the consumer experience for many, and you can’t argue the speed, accuracy and indeed lower spend on productivity, but jobs – and customers – have certainly been lost in the transition. It may cost less to employ fewer people, but it’s almost a moral obligation to offer a job you have available to fund, to a person who needs the income. There will always be jobs where a human employee can offer a better experience to human customers. For example, it’s a fairer process or more relatable to talk to a human, particularly when more complex product concerns or problem solving is needed, even if technology may soon be able to mimic humans more than we’d like to imagine.

Machines are yet to have their own bills and rent to pay but with so many people in need of work and money to survive, a combination of man and machine should ideally be utilised in any business, wherever possible.



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