Accelerated automation in business

How has the global pandemic accelerated automation in business?


October 25, 2021

In March 2020, businesses across the world were forced to adapt their processes as we adjusted to the Covid-19 pandemic, working to maintain operations with many staff working at home and various lockdown restrictions in place.

For many, the quickest solution was automation, to ensure business could continue with remote management or even without human interaction at all. A global survey carried out by McKinsey in 2020 suggested that the pandemic has accelerated the adoption of digital technology by several years.

As conditions changed week by week companies had to rethink existing plans and respond at pace, injecting a degree of flexibility that might change the way many of us work forever. Indeed, many industries that might have never considered automation before have now introduced new solutions.

A new approach for many industries

One such example can be seen in the restaurant trade, which was hit hard by prolonged closures and needed to safely welcome patrons when doors were finally opened again. Pubs, cafes, and restaurants quickly installed apps that allowed people to view the menu, order, and pay online, minimising the need for person to person contact.

In the US, restaurant chain Arby’s is using a voice recognition system named Tori to take drive through orders, and McDonald’s is experimenting with similar technology. A similar outlet chain called White Castle has begun using robots to cook hamburgers and French fries, because according to the owner, “Robots, after all, can’t get sick or spread disease”.

The swift increase in online shopping during the pandemic has seen many stock warehouses bring in automated systems to manage the increase in demand. One of the largest online retailers, Amazon, has invested in automated systems that reduce the need for workers to walk up and down endless rows of shelves to fulfil orders, saving time by sorting and seeking products automatically and moving shelves to deliver the right items to waiting staff.

Globally, warehouses are expected to invest $36bn in automation this year, up 20 percent on 2020. Combined investment in the last two years has gone up $1.6bn against pre-pandemic forecasts, according to research group Interact Analysis.

What is the impact on staff?

There is an assumption that an increase in automation technology means a loss of jobs for workers, yet despite reportedly high rates of unemployment, many businesses that are now able to return to a form of normality are struggling to recruit. Vacancies in the UK, for example, hit a record high of 1.1 million between June and September 2021, according to the Office for National Statistics.

One of the main benefits of automation is that it can save worker’s time and energy in completing manual repetitive processes, boring tasks. Rather than making roles redundant, technology can allow a business to redeploy workers into more interesting work, making better use of staff skills and expertise. Solweb client Endeavour Specialty Chemicals found they were able to free up laboratory workers from admin tasks with automated systems, which delivers value to the company and the individuals themselves. 

There are many businesses which may have had automation in their plans for the future and the events of the past year and a half have provided the opportunity to accelerate these plans and adapt quickly to changes in market behaviour. It has forced a change in mindset that will permanently impact our approach to business, because resilience and flexibility is now more important than ever and automation can allow companies and teams to respond effectively no matter what challenges they face.

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