Consider the following scenarios: In the first, you want to make a mobile check deposit, but your banking app has been down for two hours. The money needs to be in your account immediately, so you're forced to drive to your bank and deposit the check in person. In the second, you have a simple question about opening a savings account, but you've spent twenty minutes being interrogated by a chatbot on the phone. All you want to do is talk to a human being, but when you say this to the bot (with maximum exasperation), the only response you get is a robotic "Sorry, I did not catch that." 

Companies are increasingly relying on technology to support their workforce, but the keyword is "support," not "replace." There are times when an app or a chatbot can address a customer's needs far more efficiently than an employee, but most of the time, there's no substitute for a human being. This doesn't just apply to the customer-facing aspects of your business - human creativity is the core driver of research and development, effective internal communication, and almost every other internal process as well. 

Technology can be a powerful facilitator, both directly and indirectly. From sophisticated data collection and analysis tools that provide deep insights about consumer attitudes and behavior to APIs (application programming interfaces) that seamlessly connect every part of your company, technology allows you to be more efficient, productive, and adaptive than ever before. Meanwhile, emerging technologies such as AI can do menial, work-intensive tasks once imposed on employees, freeing them up to do more interesting and satisfying work. 

With these developments in mind, here are the top three ways to ensure your company is prepared for the emerging human-plus-technology economy. 

Make employee training a top priority

When you see "artificial intelligence" and "workforce" in a headline, how often is the story about all the ways AI can make employees' jobs easier and more exciting? How often is it a near-apocalyptic warning that the unstoppable machines are coming for our jobs? Relentless pessimism about the effects of AI has become fashionable because it plays on very real fears about rapid technological change and job displacement, but there are good reasons to believe many of these fears are overblown. 

According to a 2018 PwC survey, 37 percent of respondents are "worried about automation putting jobs at risk" - up from 33 percent in 2014. However, 74 percent of respondents say they're "ready to learn new skills or completely retrain in order to remain employable in the future." This willingness to learn and adapt will serve employees well, as 52 percent of CEOs say they're "exploring the benefits of humans and machines working together."

With the increasing concerns about job displacement, employees will be more and more open to discussions about how they can develop their skills and continue to contribute in the human-plus-technology economy. Susan Vitale is the CMO at iCIMS a recruitment software provider for companies like 7-Eleven and Rite Aid, and she explains that her company "leverages automation across the entire business." However, this hasn't led to disaffection among employees because it has replaced tasks nobody was fond of in the first place (such as scheduling) while providing tools for time management and other operations. 

As Vitale explains, employees aren't saying "Hey, you're taking away my job" because iCIMS is using technology to complement their skills instead of attempting to make them redundant.

To her point, brands like CDW, a Fortune 500 global technology solutions provider, leverages texting technology and chat bots in its recruiting process to answer simple questions from job candidates, schedule interviews, etc. As a result, CDW is seeing an 87% response rate with a text message compared to 5% with a call, and most of these text message responses come in within two hours or less. Leveraging AI to provide live chat options for candidates, CDW's talent acquisition team has saved more than 1,500 hours of time that recruiters previously spent answering basic questions about the application process and company. 

Become more, not less, human

Terms like automation and artificial intelligence understandably make people think of long assembly lines, lifeless factory floors, and people out of work. But as we learn more about emerging technologies and how they'll interact with the modern workplace, complacent assumptions about this dystopian future are increasingly being challenged. 

In the last decade, Personal Capital has emerged as a leading "human-plus-tech" financial services company--grounded in advanced technology and impartial logic. "We've built proprietary personal finance technology that empowers our users, our clients, and our advisors," says Kyle Ryan, EVP of Advisory Services at Personal Capital. "While tech gives our advisors deep insights about their clients' financial lives, ultimately what we're doing is giving our clients holistic advice and better service." In other words, they aren't a robo-advisor who automates investing, they've combined automation and human expertise to create a system of checks and balances.  

Vitale also points out that there's "increased interest in soft skills: problem solving, adaptability, communication, collaboration, creativity. In some cases, this gives people opportunities to showcase how they are unique." PwC researchers agree, arguing that "tasks which automation can't yet crack," requiring skills such as creativity and imagination, are becoming more important to employers. Somewhat ironically, soft skills are still needed to make decisions about what AI and machine learning actually reveal.

Meanwhile, despite the fact that consumers often associate AI with robocalls and clunky chatbots, this is a narrow picture of how technology is affecting customer service. Hai Nguyen is the co-founder of Appfluence (a productivity software company based in Palo Alto), and he says automation has allowed the company to respond to customer inquiries more efficiently and effectively. Appfluence is now able to "respond to customers 15 percent faster despite seeing 50 percent more customers' tickets between 2017 and 2018." 

AI-powered digital assistants can handle a high volume of routine customer complaints and requests, which opens human customer service professionals up for tougher cases. This improves the customer experience on two levels: it reduces wait times while providing more personalized assistance to those who need it. 

Forge new connections

We live in an era of vast interconnectivity, from supply chains that stretch around the world to digital tools that allow us to communicate and collaborate from anywhere on the planet. This is why it's no surprise that companies are integrating their workforces like never before, a process that's being facilitated by technology such as APIs.

APIs provide centralized platforms for applications to communicate with one another across your company, which means all employees have access to the same information and processes. Nguyen observes that "More companies are adopting and creating publicly accessible API, which means savvy organizations can finally tie all their data sources together." When employees across departments and teams have immediate access to the same data and analysis tools, it's much easier to make full use of their unique talents and insights. 

According to McKinsey, organizational silos - factions within your company that "hesitate to share information or collaborate across functions and departments" - can harm productivity. APIs and cloud-based productivity tools can break through these silos and ensure that everyone has access to the information and resources they need to solve problems as a team. 

We shouldn't be sanguine about the technological revolutions that are taking place all around us. Transitions on this scale are difficult, and there will undoubtedly be winners and losers. But we should never forget that there's no replacement for human ingenuity and perspective, and as long as companies focus on education, workplace innovation, and open communication, we might be surprised at just how human the digital era will be. 

Published on: Oct 1, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.