Smart Work: Engagement in the Age of Automation

How to motivate employees in the digital age?

“Adults are much more likely to act their way into a new way of thinking than to think their way into a new way of acting.”- Richard Pascale

Let’s be honest, it’s tough to engage employees when robotic replacements are looming over their heads. It’s hard to motivate workers when they, and frankly you, don’t know how long they’ll be around.

This tension is paradoxically making human employees even more important. The faster technology moves, the more critical is the human element because people are clearly better than machines at many tasks. Robots are unparalleled in picking and packing tidy rectangular boxes in Amazon warehouses, but humans excel at wrapping umbrellas and automobile tires and other atypical shapes. Humans can add an emotional empathy that no bot can achieve.

But to succeed in today’s world, human employees need to be both augmented and engaged. Only augmented employees, who have been trained to exploit new technology, and to analyze real-time data can provide real value to their organizations. Machines can’t do it by themselves. At least not yet or for the foreseeable future. And only engaged employees will want to use their augmented capabilities in their work.

This assertion drives our central argument, augmented employees must be engaged employees. Without the emotional connection of engagement, no augmented capability can deliver sustainable value. Smart organizations must fuse data and analytics with emotional intelligence.

At the root of engagement is purpose and meaning. Purpose comes from the mission of the organization and the engaged employee’s connection to that mission. Meaning is derived from a small set of core values that are marbled into every element of the organization. These values must live in the operational fabric and management systems across the organization.

But values cannot exist as words on a mission statement, they have to live in the real material world as behaviors. Engagement is achieved thru action not aspiration. The Smarty Behaviors described below can only become real through re-designed and bigger jobs with larger accountabilities. They must live where the front line meets the customer with clear and bigger decision rights. They must permeate incentive and job evaluation systems. To be valuable they must drive promotion and hiring.

The core Smart Work Behaviors are as follows.


Everything begins with honesty, integrity, and safety. If these are absent, nothing else matters. When they’re only lip service, it’s time to prepare your resume.

Balancing Ambitious with Humility

This behavior is defined by managing the tension between the relentless search for excellence and a constant dissatisfaction with the status quo. Successes must be celebrated but humility ensures the understanding that victories are always temporary.


There’s an old Japanese aphorism, “None of us is as smart as all of us.” This means all three basic forms of collaboration, human to human, human to computer and computer to computer must be designed and supported. When this is working well teaming is common and shared goals and metrics are the norm.

Customer Centric

While we focus on engaging employees, only customers pay’s everyone’s salary. Serving the customer must be more than a bland cliché but the source of a meaningful purpose to all employee’s augmented jobs no matter how near or far from the external customer. Technology often best used to celebrate the human touch in integrating processes between suppliers and customers.

Decisive and Data Driven

Examples of this behavior in action include: using pushing autonomy to the front-line coupled with training and data provisioning, actively sensing the external environment to avoid bad surprises and, having clear decision rights for all designed roles. When HIPPO (the highest paid person’s opinion) is the decision-making norm, objectivity is always lost.

Doubly Accountable

Accountability is all about doing what you say you’ll do and doing it the right way. Smart organizations focus on both the ends and the means and hold employees to both standards.

Intellectually curious

“Sacred cows make the best burgers” should be the motto of a smart organization. Having great data is useless unless employees are smart enough to ask the right questions. Augmented employees must be empowered to ask even uncomfortable questions and to challenge traditional beliefs. With so much information now “knowable,” there must be no constraints to employee curiosity and no impediments to exploiting new ideas.

Engagement can’t be edicted. Augmentation can’t be declared. Both have to be more than programs or strategic wishes. Smart behaviors must be designed into real jobs, real process tasks, real incentives, and woven deeply into the cultural fabric of the organization.

How smart are your organization’s behaviors? Ask us for our free Smart Work assessment to find out!

Frank Wander

Frank Wander, a former CIO, is the founder and CEO of PeopleProductive (, and the author of Transforming IT Culture, How to Use Social Intelligence, Human Factors and Collaboration to Create an IT Department That Outperforms (Wiley, 2013). This unique book is the first operator’s manual for human infrastructure and will help you successfully transform your leadership style and organization.

PeopleProductive has taken that concept to the human side of the enterprise. We similarly help you find, measure and fix a broad spectrum of behavioral, emotional and enablement issues. For the first time, you can eliminate the inefficiency that holds highly productive people back and measurably increase productivity.

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