Automation and the IKEA effect



Have you ever heard of the IKEA effect? Earning its name from the popular furniture chain, the IKEA effect links the impact effort makes on our perceptions of value.

When we toil over a task, we invest in its completion. The results are fruits of our own labour. This instils a degree of pride and estimation in the finished work; our endeavour leads to a disproportionate level of appreciation.

Automating tasks, then, would appear to work against the IKEA effect. Presumably, any automated work becomes abstract and devalued. Except that’s not quite the case. Here we explore how, counterintuitively, automation and the IKEA effect can come hand in hand.


What is the IKEA effect?

Before exploring how automation and the IKEA effect fit together, we should examine the phenomenon more closely.

The IKEA effect was identified in a 2011 academic study, though the research it builds on spans as far back as the 1950s. The study’s authors – Norton, Mochon, and Ariely – cited previous work on “effort justification”. In a nutshell, all collated evidence indicates that the more effort we put into something, the more we value it.

The IKEA model is an obvious modern-day example of this revelation. That is, most of us will place a higher psychological value on the IKEA table we’ve constructed, than on the same table if it had come already built.

So, how does the IKEA effect impact our working lives?


The IKEA effect and the office

Applied to the office, the IKEA effect concerns the way we value our workload and the tasks it comprises.

At first glance, it makes sense to assume that using automation makes you less invested in your processes and workflows. You aren’t taking part or personalising how the work gets done. Automated tasks run in the background; they’re immaterial. They require neither your thought nor your effort.

So, according to the IKEA effect, introducing automation reduces the value we place on our work. And that logic would be sound if not for the way automation software is deployed and configured.


Looking again

The true relationship between automation and the IKEA effect is nuanced. Due to its often intricate and highly customisable nature, automation is more likely to induce the IKEA effect. (Rather than offset it.)

First is the fact that automating workflows is a bespoke, manual affair. Automation software does not come to you as an intelligent, ready-made solution. It’s more of a flat-pack kit than a ready-assembled product. As such, you have to fine-tune the software to your needs and feed it a series of layered rules.

In order to run a process automatically, you first need to define that process step by step. Then, you need to translate it into a set of instructions for the automation tool to follow.

The format of these instructions – ‘if’ rules – also requires effort. Automating your workflows accurately requires a series of conditionals with a varying degree of detail. For all but the simplest of actions, it’s not enough to use a generic ‘if this, then that’ rule. You’ll need to set further, more specific logical operations to automate longer processes.

As a result, then, process owners have to define and design task automation. They have to critically analyse their workflows, then carefully configure their automation tool to handle its share effectively.

So, despite its implementation meaning reduced future labour, setting up automation is not without its effort. And this is how, adversely, automation triggers the IKEA effect.


What this means for the workplace

The unlikely pairing of automation and the IKEA effect brings substantial benefits to the workplace. Most obvious are the productivity and efficiency gains. But on a psychological level, eliciting the IKEA effect is also advantageous.

Because team members help to engineer their own automation solution, they feel both more involved and more invested. This reduces automation anxiety. Automation isn’t perceived as the enemy; it’s an assistant to be trained and managed.

As such, the IKEA effect can help ensure your automation deployment doesn’t hurt the workplace atmosphere. Employees aren’t fearful of displacement. Nor do they feel disheartened. If setting up the initial automation is so painstaking, employees don’t see their former workloads as ‘easy’. (And therefore devalued.) Instead, they feel included while they transition to higher-value work.


Automation and the IKEA effect

At first glance, it seems as though automation and the IKEA effect work in opposition to each other. But, when you look a little deeper, it’s clear that the two often overlap.

It just takes a small change in perspective.


Useful links

Automation and the nature of effort

The fishing rod, not the fish

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