In 2018, 71% of work tasks were performed by humans. By 2025, more than half are expected to be performed by machines. 

Sobering statistics, from the World Economic Forum. If these predictions are anywhere near correct, the world of work as we know it today could look completely different.

Here’s everything you need to know about business automation (without the buzzwords). Keep reading for a primer on:

  • What is business automation?
  • Are there different types of automation?
  • Common examples of automation at work
  • The impact of the pandemic on attitudes to automation

What is business automation? 

Leading provider of enterprise open source solutions, Red Hat, defines automation like this:

‘Automation is the use of technology to perform tasks with reduced human assistance. Any industry that encounters repetitive tasks can use automation, but automation is more prevalent in the industries of manufacturing, robotics, and automotives, as well as in the world of technology – in IT systems and business decision software’.

At its most basic, business automation can mean using technology to automate a single task – like posting a job advert from your ATS or notifying an employee to update their address annually.  

Business process automation can be much more sophisticated than this though, involving automating complex, multi-stage workflows. Within HR, that might look like automating payroll or employee onboarding.

At enterprise scale, organisations might work with dedicated digital transformation consultants and spend millions on costly, far-reaching business automation software that’s custom-developed around their unique technology architecture.

After all, the UK’s digital transformation market was sized at $24.90 billion in 2021 and is projected to grow at a CAGR of 22.2% to 2030. The rise of automation software likely accounts for a hefty chunk.

Are there different types of automation?  

Business automation, business process automation (BPA), robotic automation, IT automation, industrial automation, and workforce or workplace automation are overlapping and closely related terms under the automation umbrella.

For example, Cisco Meraki define workplace automation as: ‘the application of processes or systems using technology (software and/or hardware) to do repeatable or predictable workflows without requiring manual intervention’.

Despite the proliferation of terms and ever-expanding nuances, business automation is a simple concept: identifying the tasks that are repeatable, predictable, and manual and equipping technology to handle them instead.

This by nature is extremely broad, so automation finds sophisticated use cases touching every business process and function.

Examples of automation in the workplace 

There are automatable processes throughout and across most businesses, in management, operations, HR, marketing, sales, procurement, IT, and supply chain.

According to Tech Target, the best candidates for automation are ‘tasks that are high volume, recurring, time-sensitive, involve multiple people, need compliance and require audit trails’.

Here are a handful of examples of business processes that can be automated:

  • Employee onboarding
  • Payroll
  • Customer onboarding
  • Talent acquisition
  • Purchase-to-pay
  • Invoice processing
  • Claims processing
  • IT service desk support
  • Marketing automation
  • HR services automation
  • Email automation
  • Spreadsheet automation
  • Expense management
  • Workforce scheduling
  • Document management
  • Sales order management
  • Lead tracking

And many, many more…

The point of workforce automation is to standardise processes using technology, creating efficiencies that increase productive output while freeing employees’ time to work on other, more valuable, tasks.  

For example, IBM’s Automation Services team talk about achieving ‘intelligent digital operations’ by using ‘AI, process automation, and advanced analytics to help deliver higher-quality processes to lower cost with less risk’.

Automation typically offers benefits like:

  • Increased productivity
  • Faster production times
  • Faster time-to-market
  • Lower costs
  • Fewer lost documents
  • Less admin
  • Reduced errors and accidents
  • Higher employee engagement
  • Higher revenue
  • Better customer service and NPS
  • Improved compliance visibility
  • Better data protection and fewer breaches

Automation has been in the background of conversations about the future of work for a while, but the pandemic did much to speed up progress.

The impact of the pandemic on business automation 

The Workforce Institute at UKG reports that 87% of UK decision-makers believe the pandemic propelled their organisation into the future of work and accelerated digital transformation.

Overall, 76% of employees said they used at least one new technology or application during the crisis. Some 36% started using mobile apps to complete some work activities and 24% used self-service applications. 

It’s worth particularly drawing attention to the fact that 86% of workers were in favour of these digital initiatives – and 38% are actively worried their organisation will revert to the pre-pandemic habits.

This finding perhaps goes some way to banish fear-mongering that employees might be replaced by new technologies like AI. (Headlines like ‘UK retail workers face 70% chance of being replaced by machines in the next few years’ do little to help.)

Pre-pandemic, such concerns were certainly common. For example, in 2018 37% of over 1000 workers said they felt automation would have a negative impact on their jobs.

Now, though, research suggests employee attitudes have shifted: only 25% of UK workers are now afraid of being replaced by technology, compared to the global average of 40% and the US average of 62%. It seems employees might be realising the truth of McKinsey’s findings: that although 60% of jobs globally are at least a third automatable, less than 5% of jobs could be completely automated. 

Perhaps we have the pandemic to thank for this change in perspective, shining a new spotlight on the power of technology to improve daily tasks. For many workers hybrid working has heralded a new dawn – 50% of whom would quit if this flexibility was off the table. These alternative working models would be impossible without enabling digital technologies.

The conversation around the four-day working week has perhaps too brought the benefits of automation into focus.  When employees are able to be more efficient – that is, they can achieve the same productive output in less time – they can spend fewer hours in the office.

The pandemic’s impact has been inconceivably vast: perhaps one of the many lasting consequences is an acceleration into, and embrace of, the future of work. 


Business automation is a straightforward concept that can become complicated fast. And it’s often also an emotive topic for employees, who don’t always see the positives of automation. 

Automation in the workplace offers huge benefits both to employers and employees – but like your digital transformation strategy more broadly, demands careful management and transparent communication alongside financial investment, to make sure the project works for everyone.