A nurse and doctor at a patient's bedside
By Drew Ehlers | April 17, 2023

A Look at Labor: What are Those Mysterious "Higher Value" Tasks Everyone Keeps Talking About?

The more you automate, the easier it becomes to focus front-line workers on “strategic” activities. But what makes one task more valuable than another – or “the human touch” more valuable than AI? Here’s our take.

How many times have you been told…

  • “technology solves problems?”

  • “investing in technology is the only way to make your operations run more efficiently?”

  • “you need to digitalize and/or automate everything if you want to gain and maintain a competitive edge?”

Probably more times than you can count, right? Tech companies evangelize these messages all the time in sales and marketing communications – so much so that these phrases are probably stuck in your head like any good jingle. But have you ever stopped to ask how exactly the technologies you’re being pitched will solve your problems or make your operations run more efficiently? Do you truly understand why you need to digitalize and/or automate everything? More importantly, how much do you personally assess the potential impact that such technology “solutions” will have on your employees?

I only ask because it’s easy for a tech company to talk about how valuable technology can be in freeing up your workers’ time for “higher value” tasks in support of your business ambitions. But saying it’s important to shift front-line workers to “higher value tasks” is a bit obscure, isn’t it? What makes a task higher or lower value? And who is in the right position to make the call about what people should and shouldn’t be doing at work – what a machine or artificial intelligence (AI) could be doing more efficiently?

If you’re a people manager, you might feel that you’re responsible for dictating what each worker does with their time, and you wouldn’t be wrong. However, I would argue that both your employees and your customers have a say, too. That’s because higher value tasks are those that enable workers to … 

1. prioritize other people. About six years ago, a Gartner survey confirmed what many business leaders were starting to realize: customer service is what wins business! Not price or even product quality, but customer service. Several other studies since have confirmed that even the most independent people sometimes want help from a retail associate, healthcare provider or other customer service team member from time to time and, when they do, they want instantaneous, personalized help. 

No one likes talking to a bot, being told to look online, or receiving a canned “corporate” answer to their questions, especially when they’ve already done their research, are tackling a seemingly complex project for the first time, encountering a problem, or needing a fast answer that will require some investigation related to order status, billing, or customization requirements. Even using an automated answering system for call routing purposes can create friction in the customer or partner experience. That’s why you will always need humans on your team. There is nothing more valuable than having a real-life person available to talk with customers via web chat, video or face-to-face. Providing a personalized touch only possible with human interaction reinforces your claims that your organization puts customers first – that you truly do care and want to help. Even if a bot says all the right words to a customer, they can’t be empathetic to the customer’s situation. Plus, 86% of buyers are willing to pay more for a great customer experience. So, there’s that.

You must also consider that employees are going to be more willing to stick around for a long time when they feel valued. That’s why it was refreshing to see worker well-being being placed at the center of the production process within the Industry 5.0 framework. People – all people – must come first. 

2. directly help generate revenue. Everything boils down to the bottom line, and the more front-line workers are focused on actions that evidently influence the bottom line, the better. For example, if they can help upsell at the point of sale, expedite returns so that customers will be more apt to go shop before they leave (since they didn’t have to wait in line long), or quickly process and reshelve to generate resale, everyone wins. In healthcare and other service delivery settings, every minute focused on helping patients or clients is generating revenue – either because they’re delivering what patients/clients need faster and therefore able to serve more people in a day or because those people feel truly cared for and will be likely to return to and/or recommend that service provider in the future. 

I realize this goes back to “people helping people,” but it’s a little more tactical in that the “higher value tasks” in this bucket are centered on improving inventory or service availability rates that ensure customers get what they want/need when they want/need it. So, the next time you’re calculating the return on investment (ROI) or total cost of ownership (TCO) for technology, make sure you’re assigning a value to the technology’s ability to help people maintain a certain level of “availability” – whatever that availability may need to be for you to make money, stay in business, and serve customers the way you want and they expect. Because, at the end of the day, it’s technology that ultimately unlocks revenue by turning inventory into sales more quickly faster and efficiently and freeing up more people more of the time for revenue generating activity. 

3. tackle complex issues in a straightforward manner. Technology can’t run your business. You’ll always need people. As more and more of your processes are automated, an increasing number of complex tasks are left to people to manage. But that’s okay because the reality of life is that there will always be some things that require human cognition and dexterity. You must free up staff with hard-to-find skills and the right experience to get those things done right – and efficiently. You also need to be able to upskill staff to take on more complex, intellectually demanding activities. So, make sure they are ready, even if that means preparing them to work in tandem with technology, such as AI tools. 

There is also one more benefit of shifting workers to higher value tasks, which I touched on briefly above but want to stress even more:

Workers will see their own well-being improve, and that aids with retention and future recruitment of friends, family and former colleagues. Anything that doesn’t put strain on employees should be considered higher value. It’s time to remove the burdensome repetitive tasks from their to-do lists. Technologies, like machine vision/imaging systems, autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) and even automated AI-based analysis and decision-making software platforms take on the tasks people dread most so you can give them more time for tasks that they actually feel good working on. 

In Other Words

No matter what your business does, I’m confident that it’s primarily powered by people (and always will be). No matter how extensively you digitalize or automate workflows, people are still going to be involved in the execution of your operation in some capacity – fielding customer calls, coordinating with partners, making decisions, and more. Some global industry thought leaders recently spoke about the intrinsic design and value of human-centered automation in this blog post, which I highly recommend you read. It reiterates that no matter how much technology powers our lives, technology is not taking over our lives. Your customers pick up the phone and call a human being – or walk up to your employee face-to-face – when they need help. And machines still very much rely on people to tell them what to do, even as people increasingly turn to AI and machine learning algorithms to help guide them through daily tasks and make the right decisions. 

So, if you’re not sure what “higher value” tasks your front-line teams should be focused on right now or in the future, you may want to talk to some of my colleagues. They have some fantastic ideas:

Deanna Self, Director of Operations, NALA, Zebra:

“The front-line worker really needs to shift from a more tactical type of approach to their jobs to a more strategic mindset. They should be focusing on more things that enable excellent customer service, identifying and solving problems, challenging processes, and implementing best practices. They should also be well-integrated into processes that support teamwork and collaboration to build a more cohesive and productive work environment. Some examples would include:

  • Continuous improvement

  • Lean principles

  • Business optimization

  • Safety and compliance

With that said, the types of tasks that front-line workers should not be doing anymore include:

  • Data entry – Machines can do routine data entry tasks with automation and machine learning.  

  • Manual inventory management – It’s a time-consuming task, and by leveraging tools like RFID and barcode scanning, workers can track inventory levels more efficiently and accurately.

  • Quality control – This is a repetitive and time-consuming process, too. With technology like computer vision or AI-powered algorithms, you can automate many of the quality control checks, freeing up front-line workers’ time for more strategic tasks.

  • Reporting – Leveraging tools like data visualization software or automated reporting to help them stop from generating reports and spending more time analyzing data and making informed decisions.

  • Administrative tasks – Even simple things like scheduling or managing calendars can be managed by technology.”  


Tomi Fadipe, Utilities and Energy Global Strategy Lead, Zebra:

“Below are examples of areas where more time needs to be spent by front-line workers and their managers in the utilities sector: 

  • Process improvement 

  • Tasks that allow for creative and strategic thinking 

  • Training and upskilling  

  • Knowledge transfer and coaching  

Too much time is being spent “putting out fires,” considering other pressing needs for infrastructure upgrades and system resiliency to support new operating dynamics fueled by population and sustainability demands. At the same time, the workforce in these sectors is “growing younger” as anywhere between 25-50% of current front-line workers make plans to retire in the next few years. The focus needs to be on ensuring the next generation is well-skilled and confident to carry on the years-long infrastructure modernization and expansion efforts. Time and money need to be spent laying the groundwork for more automated workflows and information distribution as well.

For instance, front-line workers should no longer be losing time on aspects of their workflows that can be streamlined with automation, like having to determine what parts are required to complete an assigned work order or manually reporting job progress status and estimated time to restore (ETR). The use of automated systems can help determine the parts needed based on work order details (engineering design) and trigger automatic generation of material requisition(s) to pull parts from inventory in advance. Automated dispatch and routing, as well as digitalized, real-time status updates based on vehicle and worker location systems, equipment barcode scans and RFID tag reads, and other automated data capture tools can help operations managers understand resource availability, enabling real-time utilization and allocation decision-making.”


Daniel Dombach, Director, Industry Solutions, EMEA, Zebra

“From a transportation and logistics perspective, the priority for front-line workers should be exception handling – dealing with incorrect shipments, packaging, damages, and irregular shaped shipments. They should also be putting their effort toward relabeling (whenever that cannot be automated) and the maintenance of automation technology. 

What they should not be wasting time on are things that can be automated, such as milk runs, dunnage handling, the manual pushing of pallet trucks and the simple conveyance of goods. Autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) were made specifically to take on these tasks so people can focus on the things I previously noted. There are even robots that can help palletize and depalletize items and unload trucks. It’s time to look at those options."


Rikki Jennings, Chief Nursing Officer, Zebra

“Licensed nurses, doctors and healthcare professionals should not be doing jobs that others can do, such as administrative work or chasing down tools and people. They should only be spending time on direct patient care and procedures. If they must stop or delay patient care to complete a task, you need to ask yourself, “Is this something that only a person with this license or level of experience can do?” If the answer is no, then the burden needs to shift to other team members or technology to get the job done.

Fortunately, there are many tasks that can be fully automated, such as documentation, material handling and even staff scheduling, so people don’t have to deal with those distractions. Just be sure that you aren’t asking people to spend a lot of time managing the automation systems or it will defeat the purpose of offloading tasks to technology.”

Best Practices, Healthcare, Warehouse and Distribution, Automation, Leadership, Retail, Hospitality, Energy and Utilities, Manufacturing, Transportation and Logistics, Field Operations, Banking, Public Sector,
Drew Ehlers
Drew Ehlers

Drew Ehlers currently serves as the Global Futurist and the Head of Global Partners. 

He previously served on the Zebra Ventures team and in several product management roles for Zebra's Chief Technology Office where he was responsible for producing advanced machine-learning models and algorithms for predictive analytics to solve critical business problems for Zebra and its partners and customers. This included emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, computer vision and blockchain. 

He currently holds contributing board positions on the Global AIM Blockchain Council and the Retail Advisory Council for Data Analytics and Artificial Intelligence at Northwestern University.

Mr. Ehlers has more than 19 years of experience within the B2B technology industry and has held numerous leadership roles. Previously, he served as Senior Vice President at Gallagher Bassett and Vice President of Channel for the North America region at Zebra.

He holds a Master of Business Administration from the University of Maryland College and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.

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