Six steps to ease process and workflow automation

What a group of ethnographers learned studying workplaces, and the challenges of digital transformation 

“Change is hard,” is a phrase we heard repeatedly as we studied how digital workflows impacted employees in two very different organizations: a state government agency in the U.S. and a health system in Australasia.

In both the organizations, we were told certain employees resisted change. Employees were scared to learn new technology or feared failing. Others were stressed by the disruption to their routines. Some put obstacles in the way of changemakers. A small number even left their jobs.

Through interviews with front-line workers and senior leaders, we’ve identified lessons that can help executives address these challenges and empower employees to create more value for the organization and themselves.

1. Develop a culture of change

Both organizations are seeking to establish a culture where people come to work expecting to learn and adapt, not just master repetitive tasks. This has entailed new management strategies to encourage staff to engage with the change process. Organizational change must be carried out in a way that helps employees adapt to new ways of working. For example, rolling out a new customer service management system across a large workforce and a whole state has to be done gradually to allow time for the narrative to settle and for employees to understand the scale of the impact on their roles.

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2. Collaborate across all levels of your organization

In both organizations, service delivery staff appreciated being listened to by leaders and technology professionals during periods of change. Donna, an administrator in charge of the team that schedules patient appointments in the Australasian health system, told us the experience of working together to adopt a new scheduling system has strengthened her team and improved collaboration with other departments.

Stella, the organization’s chief digital officer, says this process is essential to make sure any new technology is easy to use. Stella emphasized the need for dialogue between the users of all new systems and the IT department so that problems can be anticipated and resolved. She refers to this as the “co-design of the user experience.”

3. Clarify expectations

In the U.S. state agency, leaders told us the new customer service management system tracked the time it took workers to complete a task for customers. As a result, some employees feared they were being monitored for speed. Leaders had to explain that they weren’t trying to spy on employees. Instead, managers were examining customer service processes in order to measure and manage the agency’s overall performance.

At the same time, employees now know the time they take with customers is being measured. According to their managers, this has improved their focus and prompted them to ask questions and make suggestions to improve workflows.

4. Show benefits

Digital workflows—such as customer service management, patient scheduling, task scheduling, and recruitment tracking—all bring benefits for workers. Employees are able to work more efficiently and effectively. Workloads become more manageable and stress is often reduced.

In addition, remote online access to systems and email, as well as video-conferencing, enable employees to work flexibly from any location. For many employees, these benefits more than compensate for the challenges involved in learning new ways of working.

5. Focus on mission

Our research participants emphasized that workflow automation had strengthened their organization’s core mission. Helen, who is responsible for hospital and community-based services for older people in the Australasian healthcare system, said their personalized approach to patient care had not changed. “It’s just that we should use technology to make it as easy as possible for our staff to be able to do it,” she added.

6. Train

Both organizations are actively rolling out digital literacy training for employees. Our evidence suggests organizations should think carefully before making assumptions about existing levels of digital literacy, particularly when introducing systems that require skill sets not present in legacy job descriptions. The training programs have been very well received. Training helped assuage fears that staff were being left behind, or rendered obsolete. Managers also said people get engaged when they are asked to send in ideas for feedback and can see change happening.