Government and SMEs failing to consider automation to combat staff shortages

Government and SMEs failing to consider automation to combat staff shortages

Joep Hoeks, Chief Product Officer at Exact

Entrepreneurs in the Netherlands have been suffering from an acute shortage of staff for some time now. This is something the Dutch government is well aware of, with the matter recently receiving a great deal of attention in the House of Representatives. The government's proposed solutions are primarily aimed at encouraging full-time work and supporting HR policies. Rather notably, automation is often left out of the discussion. This is despite the fact that in a labour market – where the number of vacancies is (much) greater than the number of people available – companies should be looking more at automation as a partner in the fight against such shortages. After all, there's more work to be done, but fewer employees and less time to do it in. Automation makes organisations less dependent on the size of their workforce, and allows people to do more work of a higher quality.

However, structural staff shortages aren't the only challenge. Employees may be absent for various reasons, whether due to holiday, sickness or having a baby. The latter two are becoming increasingly common: from January to August 2021, 5% more children were born than a year earlier. It should be pointed out, though, that this is less disruptive than sickness-related absences, with Statistics Netherlands (CBS) recently announcing that absences due to sickness have never been so high. This is a much more problematic development. In other words, to keep the Netherlands running smoothly, companies should consider how automation could benefit them.

People make the difference

Robots lack quite a few human qualities, and it doesn't seem like they'll be changing anytime soon. Creativity, a sense of purpose and humour are just some of the qualities we can't programme yet. Whatever opportunities exist or arise for automation in business and SMEs, people will nevertheless always play a crucial role. The only thing that will change is the tasks that they perform. While computers focus on easy, routine jobs, people can be deployed in key positions where computers have no – or less – possibility for deployment.

Meetings with four or six people?

Back in April, news portal ZorgKrant reported that sickness-related absences in the Netherlands had reached a record high, with large companies reported as being even harder hit than SMEs. Nevertheless, the Dutch economy continued to run 'as normal'. It seems that the immediate, continuous availability of staff is not a prerequisite for success. If there are enough people in the right places, companies will be able to cope.

Whether a meeting is attended by four or six people, its outcomes depend on the quality of the participants, not on how many people are there. This is different for manufacturing or administrative roles. If two out of eight operators are missing in the factory hall, this constitutes a serious problem. What if the administrative department has four full-time employees, but one unexpectedly becomes absent? The reason for absence doesn't matter (much), but the nature of the work to be performed certainly does. A meeting room can cope with a few absences. When it comes to operating machinery, this is not the case. That's why automation should be a priority when it comes to routine tasks. It is, for all intents and purposes, an extremely meticulous and reliable employee who is always available. Automate where you can, so you always have people available where you want them.

An engine running in background

Assuming fluctuations in an SME's workforce are a given, entrepreneurs will benefit from having as many of their people as possible do qualitative and/or creative work. This means the engine will continue to run even if these people cannot or do not want to be there, or if they are simply unavailable due to a competitive labour market.

Think of a company like a combustion engine. The 'executive' business processes are the gauges, hoses and fuel that keep it running. Without petrol, it will not run, so the supply of fuel needs to be constant – and automated. The creative people at an organisation are the engineering team that upgrades the engine from time to time. They are the people who get it to run faster, add parts to it and improve its output. They do this as well as they know how – but what about when they’re on holiday, sick or on maternity leave? If things are set up correctly, there's no need to panic, because automation keeps the wheels turning.

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