Transformation or termination: scaling through RPA

Traditionally deemed the death-knell for human jobs, robots can actually enhance employees’ careers. Josh Pert of Virgin Experience Days talks to Inflexion about robotic process automation (RPA).

With a quarter of Brits fearing their jobs will be lost to robot workers, it is easy to envisage an employee backlash if management were to introduce automation to a workplace. Add to that the fact that nearly two-fifths of people (37%) fear the rise of automation will make their job ‘worse’ and it’s clear the usual lens of robotic process automation is to see it as costing human jobs.

Virgin Experience Days (VED) has seen the benefits of RPA. As a curated experiences business, the company has peaks and troughs in its customer activity, as they can be tied to the expiry dates of vouchers. Josh Pert, CTO at VED explains: “Rather than bringing additional people in over peaks such the Black Friday period to process customer orders, we used robots to help smooth the workflow over the peak in orders. Over the years we have learned it’s not valuable for the business or rewarding for colleagues to process repetitive activities, so we redeployed staff to the frontline of dealing with customers and introduced robots to execute the high-volume processing.”

Not only should this provide customers with shorter wait-times and employees with fewer tedious tasks, it also reduces an element of human error that can occur when people work faster and harder – but not necessarily better – to accommodate high-volume periods of activity.

“We are about using robots for transformation, not termination,” Josh says and points out the benefits. “Robots can work 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It takes a person 12 minutes to issue each experience gift card, whereas a robot can do it in seconds. Robots are also lower risk owing to elimination of human error, plus there is an audit trail, making any queries easier to investigate. Thirdly, the robotic effort can be scaled up to handle spikes in demand, meaning people don’t need to work late and / or over weekends to meet demand during peaks.

Drivers of RPA

Typically processes which are manual, time-consuming and require little in the way of human value-add lend themselves well to RPA. “As a consumer business, our order volume can vary dramatically due to seasonality, and this generates resource spikes. To smooth this out we’re addressing tasks where service level agreements are tight but processes are either very complex, highly repetitive or subject to high variation in volume to robotic automation.” 

The automation programme is far from ‘done’ at VED. “We are in the process of moving our people to roles which require more skills and which they should find more interesting, as it makes for more engaged employees and a better customer experience.” And there is more to come, with VED assessing further opportunities which may be made more efficient through RPA. “We have so far focussed on manual processing of orders, but we may look to utilise robots for reporting too.” This could cover B2B sales, finance processing and payroll, among other areas at VED.  

It is important to remember the robots are not a panacea for entire offices.

And who is managing the robots? “We have a robotic manager managing the robots,” Josh chuckles, adding the fact that the bots have names. “We have named all of them after characters in The Jungle Book.” And so one cannot help but picture the Baloo bot singing to his human manager: “I wanna be like you, I want to walk like you, talk like you, too. You see it's true, a bot like me, can learn to be like you, too…”