For companies struggling to find and retain skilled workers, a lot of the answers — like offering higher compensation, building compelling cultures and creating incentives for long-term service — are pretty obvious. But if you really want to conquer hiring and retention issues, which remain widespread despite having abated somewhat since the peak of the Great Resignation in 2022, you need to think outside the box.
And there’s nothing more outside the box than automating to retain employees, not displace them. For context, let’s focus on automation in the realm of accounts payable, because it’s a role that every business needs but is often hard to fill. The logic below, however, applies to virtually any domain where you are struggling to recruit and retain employees with particular skills.
Top 3 Reasons Employees Quit During the Great Resignation
According to Pew, the most glaring reasons employees left their jobs in 2021 are because they were:
- Receiving pay that was too low.
- Lacking opportunities for advancement.
- Being disrespected at work.
What’s Causing Today’s Retention Challenges?
Before diving into the role of automation in improving hiring and retention, let’s dig deeper into the human resources challenge that businesses are facing today.
It may be tempting to explain the current crisis as an outgrowth of the pandemic. The Great Resignation, or people quitting their jobs en masse, happened simply because Covid-related isolation led folks to reexamine their priorities in life and to become more choosy about where they worked… right?
Not exactly. According to Pew, the real factors behind workers leaving their jobs at the beginning of the Great Resignation include issues like employees’ pay being too low, feelings of disrespect at work and lack of opportunities for advancement. In fact, a study described in 2021 by the Journal of Applied Psychology found that employees who reported feeling bored and unchallenged at work were more likely to leave their jobs than those who were not.
Basically, hiring challenges are not something that will go away over time. They’ve already outlasted Covid, inflation and interest rate hikes. I actually think they’ll persist well into the era of AI. Solving these challenges requires employers to help people work better rather than assuming that the issues will work themselves out over time.
How Automation Can Help Employees Advance Their Careers
Most of the conversation about automation today is in the context of threats to employees, especially when speculating about the future of AI. But people don’t talk enough about how parts of the jobs that are automated away are the most repetitive or least creative, which are exactly the tasks that people hate doing anyway.
In the function of accounts payable, my company’s AI extracts data from invoices, assigns expenses to the proper cost centers and matches invoices to purchase orders — tasks that require certain skills and training but are time-consuming, repetitive and not terribly fun for AP employees. When an AP team spends the bulk of their time on tasks like these, they start to feel burned out, disrespected or unable to advance meaningfully within their company, which are precisely the reasons that Pew cites for employees leaving their jobs.
“Automation doesn't replace people. It maximizes efficiency.”
But I’ve heard time and again from customers: people in accounts payable find their jobs more fulfilling when Billy the Bot (the name of my company’s AI) takes on their routine tasks for them.
Automation frees your AP staff to focus on more interesting and rewarding work, such as implementing new payment methods or strategizing to improve their business’s cash flow management practices. Strategic work like this is engaging, rewarding and opens opportunities for AP employees to advance in their careers by broadening their skill sets beyond simple payment processing.
I spoke with Jeremy Patterson, accounting manager at Becker Studios Construction, who says that his job used to be “just running AP and putting out fires left and right.” But with automation, he’s now able to “actually manage the department to help the business. AP automation doesn't replace people. It maximizes efficiency.”
“The AP hiring pool has become very shallow," Patterson says. “I don't always know where to look to find competent accounting people so our business can keep growing. But with AP automation in place, it becomes easier to do more with the existing accounting team, without causing them to burn out.”
Could AI Become Just Another Colleague?
No one knows for sure the extent to which AI will automate the tasks currently performed by humans. Will it only address the mundane, routine tasks? Or, will it extend to the more creative tasks that we’d otherwise expect to be the responsibility of people?
While it’s impossible to say for certain, the experience of businesses that have been using AI for a period that predates the recent explosion of generative AI is instructive to note. Take the example of Wenspok Companies, a $150M+ Wendy’s franchisee that operates 67 restaurant locations in 10 states. Amanda Brown, the company’s controller, says that there was a lot of angst among the team when they learned that AI would be coming in to perform AP tasks. “Our AP team was nervous that the AI would be a threat rather than an asset to their jobs,” she says.
But once the AI was in place? Instead of feeling displaced, the team felt empowered. “With [the AI] now performing such time-consuming manual tasks as coding invoices to the correct general ledger accounts, the AP team has seen their responsibilities shift to projects that add much greater value to the business.” Brown says that her team sees the AI as a fellow team member — not a threat, but a partner.
The message is clear: If you want to put the Great Resignation permanently in the rearview mirror, you need to embrace workplace automation.