Does Workflow Automation Improve Employee Morale?
By Mike Raia Posted August 7, 2019
Many of the positive impacts of workflow automation businesses expect are related to productivity, efficiency, accuracy, standardization, etc. But what impact, if any, does workflow automation have on employee morale?
"Clients do not come first. Employees come first. If you take care of your employees, they will take care of the clients."
Unhappy, unengaged employees can have a devastating effect on both an organization and its customers. A Gallup poll found that "of all U.S. workers 18 or older, 24.7 million, or 19%, are what we call actively disengaged." In addition, 55% are simply "not engaged." You can review the report for more statistics, but the main takeaway is that unhappy employees perform worse, miss more time, and leave more readily than happy employees. Given the importance of keeping employees actively engaged, managers and leaders should be looking for as many ways as possible to keep employees happy. We believe that workflow automation is one of those ways.
The Opposite of Automation
Let's start by looking at how NOT having efficient, automated processes impacts employee morale. Consider the following common business processes and the impact of handling them manually and inefficiently.
Travel Expense Submission
Employees need to find and download the latest Excel spreadsheet, struggle with completing it correctly (leaving out key information in the process), figure out who to send it to, and then wait, blindly for someone to approve their expenses or send them back for more information. For employees using personal credit cards to cover the expenses, this is especially frustrating and morale-killing.
An employee, acting as a representative of a department, determines the need for a critical project to be delivered by the Project Management Office (PMO). They email their main PMO contact (in IT, Finance, Marketing, etc.) with some of the project details. After several days of back-and-forths with the main PMO contact, it appears all the necessary information has been provided. There is then an extended waiting period before the contact reaches back out and explains the project will not be possible given the current workload. The morale of the requesting department quickly turns dark as they wonder why this couldn't have been determined sooner, before they built out plans.
A new employee arrives at work and sits in a conference room for two days because they have no computer, phone, workspace, training plan, etc. This new employee feels lost and concerned about their decision to take the job.
Obviously, the question you should be asking when confronting any poorly-functioning process is "what is the impact of doing nothing about this?" You will usually find "ongoing employee frustration" among the impacts. These frustrated employees blame management for either ignoring the problem or not knowing how to fix it. These employees not only have low morale (which can become contagious), they are also more likely to leave.
This is NOT What I Was Hired to Do!
People take pride in their skills and career experience. However, when an inordinate amount of time needs to be spent with manual, rote tasks that seem light-years from the job they're qualified for, morale takes a hit and you hear comments like "This is not what I'm here for." and "I don't think they're paying me to do this stuff." And yet, according to a study published by Information Age, "90% of workers burdened with boring, repetitive tasks."
Examples of these tasks include:
- Managing extended email chains
- Searching for information
- Figuring out who to reach out to
- Checking in repeatedly for status updates
- Manual or duplicate data entry
- And the list goes on...
Not only are all these boring, frustrating tasks making people feel like they're running in sand, but it's putting people behind in their real work. People have less time to focus on higher-end functions like creative problem solving, strategy planning, and analysis. Instead, they're working longer hours to get the important things done. Obviously, this doesn't tend to sit well with the average employee looking for life/work balance.
Lastly, increased automation reduces training time and gets employees up to speed faster, reducing confusion and allowing them to more quickly dive into their actual role.
If the majority of your role entails being a key part of a process (for instance an administrative or support role) and the workflow is painfully inefficient, you may throw up your hands at some point and say the words no good manager wants to hear: "Whatever, I just work here."
Most people want to do a good job and they want their process to make sense. When they feel they can have no impact on the quality of their work, morale suffers and productivity declines. This is the opposite of building a culture of continuous improvement, where employees feel empowered to make every process better.
Documenting, automating, and continuously improving as much of a process as possible puts people who live in the process a better opportunity to succeed. Simple decisions are made automatically, allowing more time for exception handling, analysis, and quality assurance. People in this environment feel valued and more fulfilled because they're skill is better utilized, their output is better, and their ideas for improvement are respected.
Until process automation is in place, along with the requisite reporting and tracking tools, you are likely to experience finger-pointing and accountability issues. No one wants to admit they're a bottleneck so everyone blames everyone else. This is not a culture built for success. By graciously identifying where bottlenecks are and correcting the causes (perhaps someone is overburdened or is unnecessarily involved in the process), trust builds in the team as efficiency improves.
Change Requires Patience
One last thing to consider is that, almost without fail, any move toward standardizing and automating processes will be met initially with skepticism and pushback from some folks. This is normal but can have a temporary impact on morale. Some will see any changes as a threat and, as we discuss in our post "The New Rules of Change Management," there will be struggles and resistance. Have a change plan in place for dealing both with the morale fallout AND for handling the feedback in a positive and constructive way. If well-meaning, insightful feedback is ignored, you may not see the morale boost you expect.