Workers have long feared automation would take their jobs. COVID-19 has intensified those worries.
“Machines don’t fall ill, they don’t need to isolate to protect peers, they don’t need to take time off work,” said Oxford University researcher Daniel Susskind in an interview with TIME.
In other words, automation is pandemic-proof. But despite the common narrative, automation isn’t a competitor for humans’ jobs. In fact, particularly for small businesses, it can be a lifeline. Automation increases efficiency and frees up humans to do the things only they can do, like think creatively. That has helped preserve — and even create– jobs during the pandemic.
Small business owner Michael Alexis experienced this firsthand. His business Museum Hack, which leads tours of museums, started with humble roots in New York and quickly expanded nationwide. Then, unexpectedly, business came to a crashing halt overnight.
At the beginning of the Covid-19 outbreak in the United States last February, Museum Hack went from a $2.8 million per year business to zero in just three days. lost $2.8 million in revenue in just three days. With no new leads coming in and museums closed indefinitely, Michael had to act quickly.
As cities across the United States began shutting down and offices turned to remote work, Michael noticed that Google searches related to virtual team-building were increasing. Michael had already built a team experienced at developing and leading events, so he made a decision to pivot the company’s business model to virtual events — and give them a chance at survival.
Thus, TeamBuilding.com was born. But to support the pivot, he needed efficient and accurate systems in place. Systems that would allow him to quickly process inquiries from potential customers and get his team focused on what they do best — hosting Zoom office games and enjoying s’mores over a virtual campfire with clients. So, he turned to automation.
Michael was able to implement complex and necessary systems. That included lead sorting, which notified team members of qualified leads immediately so that they could close more deals. This process wouldn’t have been possible without automation. “We never did lead sorting before,” said Michael. “When we had a smaller sales team, they manually figured out who would take each lead based on turn.” Ultimately, it allowed TeamBuilding.com to accrue so much business, they needed to hire 100+ more teammates.
Austin Gray, who runs The Perk — a coffee shop in Winter Park, Colorado — faced a similar predicament when the pandemic struck. When the state required non-essential businesses to close except for pick-up, Austin had to figure out how to continue serving his customers.
No one orders coffee by phone, so automation became crucial. In a matter of hours, he built an online ordering system. Customers simply filled in a form with what they wanted on the company’s website and that information automatically populated a spreadsheet at the shop. Baristas could once again safely create beverages and The Perk, in turn, could stay in business.
In both of these cases, automation proved to be a complement to human creativity. People have a limited amount of mental energy. Why waste it on mundane tasks? Automation can take care of the hundreds of tiny decisions involved in everyday operations — and thereby enable workers to spend their time on more complex endeavors.
Even after the pandemic passes, we’ll live much more of our lives online. Small businesses are already beginning to prepare for that reality.
Customers may no longer want to pick out a bottle of wine in person. So the local wine shop may need automation to facilitate sales on its website. Sandwich shops will have to do more than put out a fishbowl for business cards at the cash register. They’ll have to send customers a thank you email after purchase and invite them to sign up for their email newsletter.
Automation will never match humans’ creativity. And it doesn’t have to. It can tackle mundane tasks and allow us to concentrate on developing the big new ideas that enable small businesses to prosper. The sooner small businesses embrace automation, the better off they’ll be.
Wade Foster is the co-founder and CEO of Zapier.