The routinisation of work

There’s a paradox happening in the workplace.

The workday is transforming. More and more routine tasks get absorbed by automation each day, freeing teams from daily drudgery. But the work left for human team members is undergoing routinisation, too.

In other words, work is becoming more routine as the rote is automated, rather than less.

Whether you’re in a high-skilled job or a lower-skilled one, routinisation in work is growing. So, how is this happening, and what is the impact of routinisation in the workplace?

What is routinisation?

To understand routinisation, it’s important to understand exactly what qualifies as a routine. A routine is a sequence of actions that you follow habitually.

At work, your routine may include making a coffee, checking your emails, and the order in which you complete your daily tasks. In making something routine, you’re performing routinisation.

The routinisation of work, then, simply refers to the fact that our daily workloads are becoming increasingly routine across the board.

The paradox of routinisation

With the rise of automation, the routine, everyday tasks that eat away at our time are dwindling. Software bots can – and do – handle our rote, high-frequency tasks.

For example, your daily data admin is likely automated, from extraction to deletion. Your ongoing email management is left to automation software. Anything that you can break down into a step-by-step workflow (vis-à-vis a routine) can now happen automatically. You need only feed those workflow steps to automation software.

Meanwhile, the more complex, higher-value, and varied tasks are left for human teams to handle. So, then, it’s a reasonable hypothesis that automation means less routine in our daily work.

Yet, this is largely proving incorrect. Despite automation taking routine tasks, the work people complete is growing even more routine. Herein lies the paradox of routinisation: there are fewer routine tasks and jobs to do. And yet, there is more routine work. So, how is this happening?

How this works

The paradox of routinisation is an effect of automation and computerisation. With computerisation changing the way we work, and automation changing the tasks we do, we’ve opened the way for new work routines and rituals.

One driving force behind routinisation is task variety. Automation eats up the little tasks, leaving the bigger, more nuanced tasks for us. But, this means that there’s a smaller variety in the jobs we need to complete each day. 

So, we can now spend more time on these higher-value tasks. In turn, this has presented the opportunity to refine and organise them. And in doing so, we make them part of our daily routine. They’re the new normal.

Routinisation doesn’t mean our work tasks are becoming rote, but that we are creating routines to help us complete them.

An example: automation and accountancy

A good way to see the impact of the routinisation of work is through examples.

Consider, for example, the work of an accountant. One of their routine jobs will include completing sums to make sure all your finances add up. The maths is repetitive, only the values applied change.

Automation can now do that part of your job for you. You feed the variable to your computer as input, and the computer completes the sums for you. Now, your job is to routinely take that output, and craft advice and insights based on it.

The impact of routinisation

Routinisation in the workplace means that ‘high-value’ tasks and the challenges we face in the workday are becoming routine for us. But what is the impact of this?

  • More mental energy

Studies and real-world examples suggest that routinisation is an effective way to conserve energy and effort at work. Energy and mental effort are a finite resource. With routinisation, you remove the draining little decisions that chip away throughout the day. You don’t need to decide what to do next, because you always do things in a certain order — that’s the power of the routine.

  • Efficiency

Routinisation also boosts efficiency. The more we do something, the more we can see ways to refine our process and cut out the unneeded. The more practice we get at our routine, high-value tasks, the more efficiently we can do them.

  • Productivity

When you combine higher energy and efficiency, you also get a productivity boost. Routinisation helps to boost our productivity — your team know what they’re doing, and when and how they’re doing it, because it’s routine. They aren’t mentally tired or drained by the time lunchtime hits because so much of the surplus decision-making is gone.

  • More consistency

When things are routine, they are easier to replicate. It’s the same thing, in the same order each time. This means that routinisation makes tasks easier to communicate across teams. It can allow for teams to ensure they’re following the best method when completing shared tasks. Similarly, when a new team member joins, training has a clear structure — you follow the routine to learn the basics.

An example: computerisation and teaching

Before computerisation, teachers would write all their lesson material on a whiteboard. (Or even a chalkboard, depending on where you are and how far back you go.) There was no need to make PowerPoint presentations or other computerised materials.

As a result, however, the same lesson would unfold differently — with slightly different material each time. Students, meanwhile, would need to make detailed notes to access the knowledge later.

Now, with computerisation, lessons become more routinised. Once a teacher has planned each lesson, they’ll teach in much the same way, with the same materials, every time. This also means more departmental cohesion. It’s easier to share ideas, lesson materials, and teaching approaches with colleagues.

So, teachers don’t need to focus on what they’re teaching, or writing things for students to copy. Instead, they can refine how they teach it.

Routinisation and the workplace

Routinisation in the workplace is a surprising but logical by-product of automation and computerisation.

With the mechanical tasks left to the machines, employees in all kinds of jobs can focus their organisation and time on the complex tasks that are left. In turn, these tasks have become part of the workday routine.

Routinisation means consistency, productivity and efficiency for the workplace. It’s a sign that teams are settling into their new work balance.

Useful links

Robots taking our jobs: the four ‘D’s to factor in

An automation lesson from your wardrobe

Automation and the concept of mental energy