A shrinking workforce and COVID-19: Singapore must automate now

By Malina Platon

By Malina Platon, Managing Director, Strategic Accounts, APAC, UiPath

Between the pandemic and population shifts, havoc is being wreaked on Asia’s economies. Both combine to form a lethal force that is pressuring businesses to change how they operate, while doing more with less.

Singapore’s economy, for example, is expected to contract 6 per cent this year according to private sector economists surveyed by MAS in September.

An earlier study from 2017 found that Singapore has the most to fear from an ageing population among Asia Pacific nations. It noted that the country faces a double whammy of a shrinking workforce coupled with slower progress than its Asian neighbours in getting more people into the labour market.

The report by Oxford Economics said Singapore's labour supply will shrink by 1.7 percentage points in the 10 years through 2026, and by 2.5 percentage points in the following decade.

The same is happening in other parts of Asia, including neighbouring economies such as Australia.

Once growing at a rate of 150,000 people per year, that growth is predicted to slow to around 100,000 people a year in the coming decade, according to data from the World Bank.

One of the main causes of this slowdown is baby boomers leaving the workforce at a rate faster than they are being replaced, resulting in what is being termed a “baby bust”. The same challenge is facing many other developed countries across Asia, with Japan and Singapore experiencing an especially rapid rate of decline.

Add to this the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, which has been a catalyst for technology adoption among many businesses, and it’s clear that the impetus for digital transformation has never been stronger. Indeed, the pandemic has driven more organisations to digitise and automate over the last six months alone than what many achieved over the last six years.

Even so, concerns about robots replacing human workers have been overdone, according to Education Minister Lawrence Wong, who in September urged Singaporeans not to worry on this front.

The virus has exposed flaws in organisations, from gaps in business continuity planning to weak links in supply chains, forcing them to go back to the drawing board and increase efforts to boost productivity. Some have compared this double blow of a shrinking workforce and COVID as being like a meteorite hitting global business – life forms being forced to adapt to new realities in a sudden and unexpected shock.

Man and machine: Co-existing at the workplace
In the face of these challenges, organisations are increasingly turning to technologies like robotic process automation (RPA) to ramp up their business resiliency.

RPA essentially provides software robots to automate repetitive, low-value tasks, increasing efficiency while reducing costs.

One such example is the Federal Bank in India, one of the country’s leading private banks, which has started using RPA technology to automate over 120 processes since the COVID lockdowns began.

Not only has this enabled the bank to continue delivering banking services to its customers seamlessly during the past few months, but it’s done so while the majority of its workforce stays at home.

Beyond this question of resiliency in the face of a sudden shock, automation is also proving vital in bringing about cultural change in the workplace. There is a growing recognition that man and machine will be able to co-exist for the good of both the human workforce and business bottom line.

Today, some 40% of the global workforce continues to work from home – a reality that will result in greater acceptance of the need for automation in the new post-pandemic world. Many are even questioning the need to go back to the pre-coronavirus world, where some workers were employed in tasks that robots have proven more than capable of fulfilling.

Breaking down barriers to automation
Of course, for some companies, taking the first step towards automation requires yet more persuasion.

One common obstacle is the chief information officer (CIO) or IT department, which can be guilty of hindering rather than helping digitisation efforts.

Whilst ironic given their supposed roles as technology leaders, this resistance often stems from the fact that they get bogged down in policing technology use rather than truly enabling transformation.

Moreover, they do not always trust independent business units to execute seriously on new technology adoption, resulting in some transformation projects being prematurely mothballed.

As the traditional relationship between business and technology becomes blurred, there is greater urgency than ever for both groups to adapt and work together.

The key is to find the sweet spot where all departments and business units can agree on a technology implementation.That can require balancing safety and sustainability concerns with the benefits to time and cost savings across different departments.

Start small, fail fast
In a bid to address some of these common concerns and internal resistance areas, some organisations have adopted a hybrid approach to automation. This sees them establishing an internal automation command centre – or ‘Center of Excellence’ as we like to call it – for their technology implementation, from which the building and distribution of RPA flows out to employees.

Once employees are comfortable working with automation and resistance starts to drop off, they become the very ones proposing new ideas for more advanced applications.

Another observation is that starting small and failing fast – a theory advocated by Paul Loke, Chief Information Officer of Singapore’s Accountant General Department – tends to pay off.

Loke advises technology champions within companies to start with a small project, typically seen as less risky and more likely to win approval from management.

A mini transformation initiative that will only cost the organisation a few thousand dollars and take just a few weeks is far less daunting than one that costs half a million and take months. This approach moves away from the traditional waterfall methodology, no doubt familiar to many of today’s business managers, which breaks down projects into linear sequential phases – each phase dependent on deliverables from the previous one. Under the new method, organisations move faster but fail faster, too.

Whilst no one sets up to fail, the reality of failure is best got over quickly so the business can move on to the next project and not dwell on spilled milk.

This mindset is about finding people who are willing to take the plunge, take small risks, and potentially reap large rewards.

Our advice is to establish a small group of likeminded technology champions and change makers, within the organisation, that are genuinely interested in transformation from the inside out. As businesses across Asia continue to grapple with the joint shock of COVID and longer-term population shifts, now is the time to embrace automation solutions that ensure they not only survive but thrive in the years ahead.

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