How the COVID-19 pandemic is upping the ante on automation

The COVID-19 pandemic caught businesses like rabbits in the headlights. Telecommuting is suddenly the new normal, while our offices are silent and gathering dust. Every inbound email addresses the outbreak with a phrase like ‘these unprecedented times’, while you discover the hard way that you don’t own a chair with the right lumbar support to sit on for nine hours a day.

Neil Webb (@neilmwebb) poignantly reminded us on Twitter that we are not working from home. Rather, “you are at your home during a crisis trying to work.” This statement truly knocks the wind out of you. Remote working has been on an upwards trajectory for some time, but this is not it. This is us trying to make the best out of a bad situation.

So, if remote working is not the real continuity hero, then what is? One silent champion in the midst of the outbreak is automation.

A stronger need than ever

Automation was always a good idea for the purpose of optimisation. Companies experimented with and adopted automation to reduce costs, save time, and better their business processes. However, automation should have always been considered a matter of survival, and unfortunately, it’s taken a global pandemic for companies to learn this.

Adoption of automation has been on a steady upwards trajectory for some time now. However, the coronavirus outbreak has triggered businesses to push it further up the agenda and consider how it can empower employees during this crisis.

Take grocery shopping, for instance. The advent of the virus led to stampedes of customers stockpiling as though COVID-19 was a synonym for ‘apocalypse’. Supermarkets then had the challenge of trying to keep up with demands while ensuring the safety of workers and customers alike.

In turn, this drove a heightened need for contactless processes and ways to free up floor staff. Starting with inventory, stock-takes became a time-consuming minefield. Not only that, but employee efforts would be better spent on sanitation and disinfection. At the same time, while self-service checkouts and contactless payments are popular in UK supermarkets, the outbreak required much more of the same.

How automation can be of assistance

Fortunately, robotics in particular proved itself useful. Supermarkets (and even warehouses and hospitals too) began using robots to clean floors and handle deliveries safely. In turn, staff could redirect their attention to other tasks, such as controlling people traffic.

Automated inventory management is also enabling businesses and hospitals to keep tabs on their stock in real time. Outbreak aside, automated inventory management systems are an obvious solution for minimising discrepancies, but during the COVID-19 era, it also takes the pressure off teams when stocks are flying off the shelves.

For warehouses specifically, a warehouse management system is non-negotiable now that online retail delivery is on the up. Throughout the crisis, warehouse management systems can acknowledge and help you plan for staff absences. Furthermore, it allows companies to keep a close eye on the timeline of products before they leave the premises. This leads to other benefits such as identifying opportunities to save time and enabling businesses to give better delivery predictions.

Most automated solutions had clear uses before the outbreak. The opportunities they deliver to staff and businesses are many. However, the uptake has been slow for reasons such as investment or the unrest of ‘robots taking our jobs’.

Despite this, if COVID-19 has proven anything, it’s that businesses that were already embracing automation and remote working are better off. With minimal disruption to their workflows, these are the players that smoothly made the transition to ‘remote business as usual’. The lesson companies have learned is that automation does indeed have a place in the enterprise, not only for optimisation, but contingency too.

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