What are the Downsides of a Digital Workplace?

There are a lot of people who are worried about the implications of an automated and digital workplace in a manufacturing setting, but the truth is there are no real downsides.

If anything, a digital workplace solves an awful lot of practical problems. The funny thing is that having a totally people-powered operation is a pretty risky thing. A digital environment doesn’t have hangovers, fail drug tests, have personality conflicts, need sick leave, or get into knife fights.

There will always be a need for human workers, but if you’re looking for a downside of a digital workplace, you’re going to be hard-pressed to find one.

Digital Workplaces Won’t Always Work Around the World

There's no downside to a digital workplace, but they don't always work around the world.However, just because they work in North America and Western Europe, that doesn’t mean they’re a good idea in other parts of the world.

In developing countries, their philosophy has always been to create full employment. For them, it’s more important to employ as many people as they can than it is to incorporate the technology that puts unskilled laborers out of work.

For example, in Bolivia, a city government will often hire 15 – 20 men and buy 15 – 20 shovels to repair the dirt roads outside the city. They’ll pay those men a couple dollars per hour (not a fair wage in this country, to be sure!) and put them to work repairing roads that have washed out after the rainy season, which keeps them employed for several months. Or they could buy a $1 million road grader and employ one driver to grade hundreds of miles of road every year, and keep 14 – 19 men unemployed. The roads get repaired and families are able to take care of themselves.

It reminds me of elevator attendants. I’m sure most of you aren’t old enough to remember real elevator attendants seated in those slow-moving, grinding boxes from the early 1900s. But if you go to places like Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico, you will often find elevator attendants in many of the high-rise buildings, operating modern elevators with regular buttons.

Again, this is because they believe in full employment for everyone. An elevator attendant will have a chair and sit in the elevator, waiting for passengers. When someone enters, the attendant asks them which floor they would like, and then punches that button for that floor.

These are not like the elevators of old that actually required a knowledgeable operator to push and pull levers to go up and down. These are the elevators that you’re very familiar with. It may seem unusual to have an elevator operator in a modern elevator, but the goal is full employment for everyone. So, elevator operators.

I even saw it the last time I was in Beijing. In the U.S., we have machines that sweep the streets for us, one driver covering several miles in a day. In Beijing, they have young people with brooms sweeping the streets and dodging traffic.

It’s this philosophy of full employment that means digital workplaces are still in the far-off future for many developing nations. I suppose if there were a downside to digital workplaces, it would be the costs to the people it would displace in those countries.

Digital Workplaces Still Need Highly-Skilled Labor

This may be a short-term problem in the developed nations, but it’s one that we can more easily solve. As manufacturing companies upgrade to a more digital workplace, yes, there will be a reduction in the unskilled labor pool.

It won’t be necessary to hire workers to carry 20 foot lengths of conduit. It’s not necessary for workers to wrap pallet loads of boxes. We won’t need people to carve intricate shapes out of steel plates or plywood.

But what we will need are people who can program the production machines that move the conduit, to repair the pallet-wrapping machines, and to program and operate the CNC machine. The skills required just to function in a digital workplace can easily put workers into the six-figure salary range, whether it’s in operation, programming, or maintenance.

And if the skilled labor pool continues to run dry, as it did before the pandemic, that means there will always be a demand for that kind of labor. It also means there will be training and educational opportunities for workers who want to be a part of the new high-tech workforce that our country and others are evolving into.

I’ve been a manufacturing executive, as well as a sales and marketing professional, for a few decades. Now I help companies turn around their own business, including pivoting within their industry. If you would like more information, please visit my website and connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn.

Photo credit: Farfan59 (Pixabay.com, Creative Commons 0)

Author: David Marshall
I’ve been a manufacturing executive, as well as a sales and marketing professional, for a few decades. Now I help companies turn around their own business. If you would like more information, please visit my website and connect with me on Twitter or LinkedIn.