Workplace Automation Bots Gain Clout Amid Covid-19 Pandemic

The pandemic-fueled growth in the adoption of software robots designed to ease routine office work is making one task a lot easier for chief information officers: selling the idea to their corporate bosses.

The technology—known as robotic process automation, or software bots—became a critical tool last year during Covid-19 lockdowns and office closures as companies worked to keep their businesses up and running. Many turned to bots to handle tasks like processing payroll data or expense reports and fielding call-center queries.

Companies tapped more advanced bots to double check complex legal documents and contracts for irregularities at much higher speeds than remote workers. These types of efficiency gains are expected to drive growth in the software bot market for years, said Mihir Shukla, co-founder and chief executive of robotic process automation maker Automation Anywhere Inc., based in San Jose, Calif.

Automation Anywhere’s Mihir Shukla speaking at The Wall Street Journal’s CIO Network Summit, held online Tuesday.

Photo: The Wall Street Journal

“Most people recognize the need for automation,” Mr. Shukla said at The Wall Street Journal’s CIO Network Summit, held online Tuesday. Now there is an even greater appreciation at the board level, he said.

The robotic process automation market is expected to grow by double digits through 2024, according to information-technology research and consulting firm Gartner Inc. It predicts global revenue in the sector will reach $1.89 billion this year, up 19.5% from 2020.

Up to 40% of companies world-wide increased their use of software bots and other forms of automation in response to the pandemic, according to estimates from International Data Corp., a technology research firm. By market share, the industry leader is New York-based UiPath Inc., followed by Automation Anywhere and U.K.-based Blue Prism Ltd. , according to a 2020 analysis by IDC.

Daniel Dines, UiPath’s co-founder and chief executive, said at Tuesday’s event that the pandemic acted as a rapid-fire proof of concept for software bots, paving the way for corporate tech leaders to make the case for expanding automation efforts—and getting the budget to do it.

“Widespread adoption requires cooperation between CIOs and line-of-business leaders,” Mr. Dines said. “And this technology has been proven in the past two years.”

At the height of the pandemic last year, UiPath said it was adding more than 10 corporate customers a day, a much faster pace than in 2019. Among other businesses, more than a dozen banks and lenders used UiPath software bots to process a flood of loan applications filed by small businesses last year under the federal Paycheck Protection Program, according to the company.

Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc. deployed software bots developed by Automation Anywhere in finance, human resources, the supply chain and other key business areas, the drugstore company said earlier this year. Walgreens said it plans to increase the use of bots in the year ahead, to adapt to changing market and customer needs in the wake of the pandemic, among other things.

Mr. Shukla said CIOs have to lay out a long-term vision for chief executives and corporate board members about how software bots will transform the workplace and their companies in the near future.

“Either they will get it or they will not survive,” he said.

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Appeared in the September 23, 2021, print edition as ‘Workplace Bots Gain Influence.’