Automation specialist Alex Croucher takes a look at the ‘virtual workforce’ and what automation of the workplace might look like.

Automation is coming.  We all know that.  But what does it look like?  It’s easy to conceive physical robots in factories and warehouses but much harder to imagine office based automation.  I often get asked if there will little robots sitting at computers.  As much as my 7 year old son believes that’s what I do, unfortunately, it’s not quite so dramatic.  Office based automation often gets termed AI but that is a huge field with a vast array of applications.

Some of the main software vendors refer to automation as the creation of office robots or bots and this features heavily in their branding.  This “robot” label is already disappearing to be replaced by friendlier terms such as “virtual worker”, “virtual user”, “virtual workforce” and “digital assistant”. 

These can be broken into two main categories: unattended (“virtual workers”) which don’t rely on a person triggering their activities and attended (“digital assistants”) which do nothing until a person asks them to.  Although this kind of automation is relatively new in the workplace, it’s already commonplace in the home.  Many people have CCTV which switches on when it senses movement (unattended) and devices such as Alexa which only takes an action when requested (attended/digital assistant).  Together the virtual users and digital assistants make up a virtual or digital workforce.

Examples in the workplace include a virtual user which scans an email box for invoices, when one is received it extracts the relevant details and enters them into the finance system or a virtual user that enters new start information into multiple systems to create user access and credentials.  A digital assistant exists on a staff member’s computer, takes instructions and goes off to do that task; depending on the organisation the activities could be vast from conducting research on potential clients before a meeting to booking an engineer appointment for a customer or processing a customer account upgrade.

The virtual workforce is not intended to replace people.  It’s intended to augment the human workforce and make it more productive, creating what has become known as a virtual user-human loop where tasks are handed between people and machines. 

Without a doubt, some organisations will see automation as an opportunity to reduce head count.  Those organisations are probably intending to do that anyway.  For those that are left and for those that work at organisations who maintain or grow headcount, their jobs will without doubt change. 

Jobs that are entirely or largely menial will transition towards higher value tasks.  Some organisations may re-deploy people into new roles and others may remove some roles and create new ones which they then hire for.  Whatever the approach to resourcing across the organisation, it’s critical that organisations are open about automation and people from across the business are engaged.  Although this is technology, automation is rarely and IT driven project.  Sponsors are typically from operations or finance and an automation project could be delivered in isolation within a department.  However, it is likely to run into difficulties when attempting to scale it across the organisation if IT, Finance, Operations and, of course, HR are not fully engaged. 

Automation is not a silver bullet for all problems within an organisation but it can deliver a broad set of benefits for all stakeholders and that includes staff.  People typically hate mundane and repetitive tasks and make mistakes.  They are much more effective – and happier – when engaging their cognitive capacities, building relationships and solving problems creatively.  HR professionals have an opportunity to engage people to bust myths and set the tone for discussion on automation. 

Automation isn’t a future concept.  It’s been happening gradually ever since Henry Ford developed the production line.  What’s recently changed is the type of roles impacted by automation.  Those who ignore the shift will one day discover that others have not ignored it with the net result being that their organisation is struggling to compete with reduction in headcount being a likely remedy.

Alex Croucher is Director of Intelligent Automation at