Automation is a game changer that is altering the industrial landscape. A Committee for Economic Development of Australia publication estimates that over the next 10 to 20 years, 40% of jobs in Australia have a high probability of being susceptible to computerisation and automation.

Smart businesses will approach the automation process from the front end and engage with their workforce in a manner that ensures the business is able to harness all of the productivity benefits from automation, without suffering the industrial dissention and dislocation which so often coincides with dramatic workplace change.

Planning and practical implementation is critical

McKinsey recently published “A CEO action plan for workplace automation”, highlighting the benefits of business harnessing automation processes within their workforces. However, it cautions the need for an appropriate plan of action.

From an industrial relations standpoint, preparing for automation sooner rather than later can provide a business with payoffs down the track.

Where the opportunity presents itself for a business to enter into a carefully tailored enterprise (or greenfields) agreement prior to implementing automation measures, such an opportunity should be seriously considered. If timed properly, this will minimise the impact on the business from workplace change, and maximise workplace flexibility to allow the business to easily transition, saving time, cost and mitigating the risk of workplace disputes arising.

Left to the last minute, an enterprise may face pitfalls in implementing technological change. For instance, should a round of enterprise bargaining be imminent, employees and their representatives will push for greater job security during bargaining through superior redundancy and retention type arrangements. These could slow change, and add cost and complexity. Late engagement and consultation may also create resentment and cause further disputes and delays.

Where workforce engagement occurs early, these issues may not be so prevalent, and a business can ensure that it has the appropriate flexibility mechanisms in place to easily transition. As reported in The Australian recently, NAB’s Andrew Thorburn reflects on the importance of planning for NAB to “retrain and redeploy” workers post-automation. Clearly, planning can deliver the best outcomes for all stakeholders.

Enterprise bargaining in the post-automation world

There are implications on an employer bargaining for a new enterprise agreement (or for a greenfields agreement over a new enterprise) that will cover the business post-automation.

For example, the ability to influence new roles that will be required from technological advances comes with the ability for an employer to:

  • effectively bargain for terms and conditions off a fresh slate as post-automation roles may result in coverage of employees with vastly different terms and conditions
  • use a different modern award (if any) as a base for terms and conditions
  • provide an employer with greater leverage in bargaining through dealing with a smaller, more specialised workforce
  • bargain in circumstances where the agreement’s coverage will dictate which union (if any) has a right to represent employees.

Of course, the need to engage workers with a different skill set may also provide a business with an opportunity for workers to grow in their careers, and present an environment in which cultural change might be effectively promoted and achieved. Viewed through this lens, technical change need not be seen as a negative from an employee relations perspective.

Implementation of process

‘Redundancy’ is the word that comes to most employees minds when they catch wind of an employer taking steps to automate elements of their work.

However, despite many claims made to the contrary, major technological change does not necessarily result in a workforce being decimated. Opportunities are inevitably presented from change for employees to upskill in order to fulfil different roles in the business (or elsewhere).

Unfortunately downsizing a workforce is, in a number of cases, a necessary step in achieving the full productivity benefits that are so attractive in implementing technological change. Again, early and effective planning can minimise forced job losses, and maximise opportunities to upskill.

Transparency and appropriate engagement with employees is critical during the process, as is implementing an appropriate consultation plan.

In a world where so many businesses are moving to automation, failure to take these steps may result in your business falling behind its competitors, change (and its benefits) being seriously delayed, or the often significant capital costs required blowing out.


Subscribe to receive the next Workplace Law & Strategy blog direct to your inbox.

Social, technological and economic forces impacting the workplace will continue to pose challenges for employers, employees, unions, policy makers and regulators in 2018.

Disruption

In 2016 the CEDA reported that 40% of Australia’s workforce could be replaced by automation within the next 10 to 20 years. Of course, automation has been happening since the industrial revolution – but the nature, pace and scale of automation is now being fuelled by digital disruption. These changes are happening now, or their seeds are being sown in many a workplace.

The Government recently established the Senate Select Committee on the Future of Work and Workers. Expect its report in June.

Corporate accountability for workplace breaches

This is one for boardroom ‘risk buckets’. Expect to see increased activity from the Fair Work Ombudsman targeting holding companies and franchisors following the enactment of the Protecting Vulnerable Workers legislation in September 2017. These changes bring home accountability to holding companies and franchisors for certain workplace contraventions by their subsidiaries and franchisees. These changes take individual and corporate responsibility for workplace compliance to a new level.

Wage growth and bargaining

There are mixed views here with economists tipping a return to healthy wage growth. Low wage outcomes have been reflected in collective bargaining. Tight economic conditions have seen many an employer “bunker down” to avoid high wage outcomes – effectively acknowledging the medium to long term impact of high cost outcomes is not worth the short term expediency of buying workplace peace. More than ever, collective bargaining and “workplace strategy” is grabbing the attention of the C-Suite, given their outcomes significantly impact the bottom-line and with compounding effect.

In the area of major project infrastructure, labour shortages will intensify in 2018. This will see a return to high cost “greenfield” agreements to incentivise project stability. Expect higher than average wage outcomes for skilled and semi-skilled labour, at least in some sectors.

Sexual harassment claims

In the wake of high-profile sexual harassment allegations against prominent individuals both here and abroad, expect to see an increase in the number of claims made in 2018. The tolerance for sexual harassment has never been lower and incentive to bring a claim has never been higher.

CFMEU and MUA merger

Make no mistake – the proposed merger of the CFMEU and MUA will be high impact. The construction and mining sectors’ reliance on port services bears this out. In circumstances where massive shipments of infrastructure hit our shores for major project construction, the nationwide impact of greater CFMEU-style control will be tangible.

Litigation funded union claims

Expect to see large union claims backed by litigation funders. These funders, typically from the UK, bankroll large scale litigation punting on a profit from the outcome. For unions, such financial backing facilitates litigation with the aim of extracting large financial settlements. This will encourage claims on a scale rarely seen in Australia, with medium and large employers with “deep pockets” in their sights.

Modern slavery and supply chain reporting

Another issue for the boardroom. Globally, there is a growing commitment to eliminate the exploitative practices of modern slavery which includes forced and child labour. Corporates are reviewing their respective labour supply chains lest they are exposed to allegations of being complicit in slavery. Details can be found in A Modern Slavery Act for Australia.

Change of government?

Federal elections inevitably shine a spotlight on the workplace. Expect the same if an election is held in 2018. The ALP has already expressed its concerns with the current workplace regime – despite it being largely a product of its own making. The “tilt of bargaining power away from workers and to employers has gone too far” according to Shadow Minister for Workplace Relations Brendan O’Connor.

Many an employer would beg to differ. Workplace laws have moved like a pendulum with changes to government in Australia, albeit remaining relatively static under the Abbott /Turnbull Governments. But it seems the pendulum will continue in its current trajectory under Labor. The Government will seek to remain a small target on workplace relations in 2018 as the recent Cabinet changes reflect. For employers, the regulatory environment will only get tougher should we see a Labor Federal Government.


Subscribe to receive the next Workplace Law & Strategy blog direct to your inbox, as we explore these topics and more throughout 2018.

Working from homeThere are lessons to be learnt about the future of work in one of my favourite episodes of The Simpsons titled ‘King-size Homer’, from the seventh season which aired over 20 years ago.

As you may recall, Mr Burns tries to get employees at the nuclear power plant ‘in shape’ by leading a workplace exercise program. As expected, however, Homer avoids this by taking advantage of the rule that someone who weighs more than 300 pounds will be classified as disabled and can then work from home. Unsurprisingly, he manages to gain the necessary weight and a computer terminal is installed in the Simpson house to allow him to do his very safety-critical work (monitoring a nuclear reactor!) remotely. Continue Reading The future of work: avoiding the nuclear reactor bird

Video killed the radio star…or did it?Radio star

In its most recent research paper analysing the effects and possible responses to digital disruption, the Productivity Commission observes that with each wave of change “speculation about the effects of technologies often suffers from extreme optimism or pessimism”.

While perhaps raising more questions than it answers, the Productivity Commission focuses on the potential of digital technologies to deliver economic benefits if regulated appropriately. Continue Reading Back to the future: The digital disruption debate