If you find a way to cut your workweek from 40 hours to two, should you do it? And if you do, should you tell anyone?
For an increasing number of workers, this isn’t a hypothetical question. It’s a real ethical dilemma that has emerged as workers use technology to make their jobs easier and more efficient. The practice of self-automation might have started in IT, but the practice has spread beyond the tech community. There are more and more tools available to automate and streamline tasks in almost every field and department, whether it be talent management or design. There has never been more opportunities for marketing associates, sales representatives, accountants, and the rest of us to ease up our working hours.
Company leaders now face the question of how to regard this burgeoning class of self-automators. Should they penalize employees who actively find ways to automate parts of their job, and as a result, work fewer hours? Some might see the practice as wrong, but I see it as something to reward.
The ethical implications of self-automation
The evolving debate around self-automation is best captured in a StackExchange forum post, which Fast Company‘s Gwen Moran previously reported on. In the June 2017 post, the author—a self-identified programmer with the user name “Etherable”—admits that they’ve effectively automated 90% of their workload. The programmer posed the question, “Is it unethical for me not to tell my employer I’ve automated my job?”
Since 2017, Etherable’s post has garnered a flurry of responses and almost 500,000 views. Within the forum, the consensus seems to be that Etherable’s behavior is problematic—particularly their deliberate insertion of bugs (although some gave the programmer a pat on the back for finding ways to get rid of rote tasks.) As the most up-voted respondent wrote, “Producing subpar results to conceal the amount of time you actually work is unethical.”
How to maximize the opportunity in self-automation
I can respect the majority opinion that Etherable’s willful deception is problematic. But I think that the company should ultimately bear the accountability for Etherable’s action. As I told Moran, this viewpoint shows a fundamental lack of trust between the employer and the employee. That’s a serious problem.
Why did Etherable’s employer give a programmer a task that’s better suited for an entry-level data analyst? Why were they using a poorly designed and outdated IT system? And, most importantly, why did they foster a culture (implicitly or otherwise) in which employees feared punishment for introducing innovation?
Call it professional bias, but I think that companies should encourage self-automation and reward employees with that kind of inclination. To me, there is definite value in hiring employees who are focused on efficiency, because it shows that they want to improve the status quo for the benefit of the company.
In short, Etherable is the kind of person I’d want on my team. There’s a caveat, though: To maximize the value of self-automators, companies have to rewire some cultural and managerial practices.
In my experience, a huge part of effectively deploying automation is how you communicate it organizationally. Etherable deceived their company because they feared honesty might cost them their job (something many others are worried about too). To me, this is a top-down cultural failing. Managers need to foster a culture where employees feel that they’re working alongside automation, rather than waiting for it to replace them.
But the work doesn’t end there. Once companies have an empowerment message around automation, they need to train managers to recognize, reward, and then challenge self-automators. A company will benefit most from automation when its workers are doing higher-value work that fulfills them personally. Managers need to be proactive about communicating with their self-automators, but resist any tendency to micromanage.
I offer these pieces of advice because I know self-automators are a DNA fit for every enterprise that values efficiency and quality. But just like every other high-performing employee, they need the culture, guidance, and support to flourish. That’s on the company.
Ryan Duguid is the chief evangelist at Nintex. He is responsible for defining the company’s product strategy to help people solve their business process problems quickly.