The employee motivation pitfall

Leveraging benefits with Robotics Process Automation

Half of all activities carried out by workers today have the potential to be automated. This not only provides a significant potential for Robotics Process Automation (RPA) but also necessitates a fundamental change in how organisations define a job.


November 2017


Software robots are already operating the repetitive and mundane parts of a wide range of business processes, ensuring both faster, more cost-efficient and more compliant process executions.

This article is the first of a series of articles – all with the fundamental viewpoint “People first” about how organisations should go about leveraging RPA benefits and turn them into competitive advantages.

Transforming employees’ work from left-brain to right-brain work requires carefulness regarding one aspect of the people dimension: motivation.

Organisations need to carefully apply a new motivation scheme when transforming the roles and responsibilities of the work involved in the RPA transformation.

If not carefully applied, organisations not only risk lowering employee motivation and lower benefit realisation – but also risk institutionalising a fixed process execution – increasing the vulnerability towards disruption from competitors and not leveraging the full RPA potential.

People first

For a transformation to succeed, a balance between people, processes and technology must be obtained – addressed in that specific order with people first.

While this is common knowledge, CRM systems are still being implemented without training sales people, and ERP systems are still being rolled out without aligning the processes involved first.

Hence, the lesson learnt for RPA transformations should be that setting up software robots that perform processes five to seven times faster and more compliant will not in itself constitute a sustainable benefit lever in the long run.

Focus on several people and process dimensions is needed for this: change, communication, motivation, managing agility, governance, operating model, process analysis, process breakdown techniques etc. This article directs focus to one of the people dimensions: motivation.

From left to right-brain work

RPA implementations are about introducing software robots to do the mundane, repetitive and trivial left-brain work, leaving the cognitive right-brain work for humans to perform.

The left-brain trivial work is typically rewarded per the old “carrot and stick” extrinsic motivation paradigm. Per this paradigm work is something workers would rather not do – and certainly not motivated to from within. Typically, the same employees who

performed the trivial work prior to the RPA implementation are now instead:

  • Managing the robots
  • Handling the cognitive part of the processes
  • Using the freed-up time performing more value-adding work

These roles and responsibilities are fundamentally different from the ones prior to the RPA implementation when only operational trivial work was performed. Underlying this approach lies a decision on whether to use robotics to augment or substitute current employees. Making employees manage the robots instead of substituting them is a great example of an augmentative approach to robotics.

However, the augmentative approach requires a whole different set of motivation factors as well as a different motivation scheme.

The new motivation scheme

As opposed to this, the cognitive right-brain work is typically rewarded per the 21st century intrinsic motivation paradigm.

Key dimensions are:

  • Autonomy – the need for self-direction and freedom to pick your own boundaries
  • Mastery – being fully engaged in the improvement process itself
  • Purpose – being part of something greater than yourself

While the old “carrot and stick” motivation paradigm under the right circumstances can provide a reasonable reward effect on left-brain trivial work by coercing, controlling and directing the employees per Theory X – for right-brain cognitive work only intrinsic motivation factors like creativity and ingenuity per Theory Y provide results. The primary reason behind this being that self-determinative behaviour is essential to human beings.

The employee motivation pitfall

If the old motivation scheme is applied to the new roles and responsibilities – i.e. still applying Theory X reward mechanisms – a mismatch between the motivation scheme and the employees’ fundamental need for self-determinative behaviour occurs.

This will inevitably result in lower motivation with the employees, which again will endanger the benefit realisation of the RPA transformation in that people will tend to fear being substituted by virtual FTEs.

But it will also encapsulate the way that the processes are executed.

Since RPA basically automate processes As-Is, the processes will perform five to seven times faster and more compliant, but they will often run the same way.

And if the employees responsible for the processes are not inclined to constantly revisit the way that the processes are run; two things will occur: Firstly, the organisation will not leverage the full potential of the RPA initiative due to the lack of motivation. Secondly, the vulnerability towards disruption from competitors increases over time.

Avoiding the employee motivation pitfall

Whilst this pitfall is often encountered in RPA implementations, it can be mitigated. In our view, these are the three key focus areas to address:

  1. Identify the To-Be roles and responsibilities currently rewarded with the “carrot and stick” motivation paradigm
    - What new work needs to be addressed?
  2. Outline the To-Be capacity – addressing both competences and resources needed
    - Who will do the new work
  3. Plan and execute the transition to the intrinsic motivation paradigm
    - How is the new work motivated?

Some organisations have worked systematically with this. The largest Nordic bank, Nordea, has been implementing RPA over the last three years, i.e. influencing the daily routines for more than 200 corporate advisers and several support units.

Robots are performing the processes faster, in better quality and more compliant. But they are also freeing up a significant amount of time for these employees for, for example, talking to customers and delivering higher quality work.

These roles and responsibilities call for a different motivation scheme than the more left-brain work of moving data between systems.

For Jon Kvist, Senior Business Developer with Nordea, ensuring employee motivation in an RPA implementation is not a trivial task. He states:

"This is new territory for both Nordea and our employees and requires for us to have a very open dialogue about our thoughts and expectations of the future workspace. Whether robots or other intelligent systems are going to take over the hand work of a given job is difficult to say. The only thing we know for certain is that the job content is going to fundamentally change – hence, we must know how to motivate our employees."


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