Managing the successful integration of service robots in the workplace, and how to deal with staff resistance
The 10-year countdown to the 2032 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Brisbane has started. Now imagine that you are going to a venue, let’s say Suncorp Stadium, and you are greeted by a humanoid robot who will show you your seats. Next, you place an order for some food and drinks via a QR code on your seat which is then delivered by a humanlike robot waiter. Sounds a bit like the movie “I, Robot”? Well, you do not need to wait ten years. The robotic revolution has already begun. And I do not mean robots in manufacturing or Amazon warehouses. Just go to some local Asian restaurants in Brisbane or the Gold Coast, and you can see how robot waiters have entered frontline service operations of casual dining establishments.
As we move from human interactions between a customer and service employee to hybrid service encounters with human and/or robotic service assistants, the question arises how humans will work together with their robot colleagues.
While a study by Oracle and Future Workplace reveals that a majority (65 percent) of workers were optimistic, excited, and grateful about having robot co-workers, research shows that employees may feel threatened by robots and experience so-called robot-phobia. Thus, it is essential that businesses mitigate anxieties and facilitate the transformation to a robot-operated workforce. Based on my research with colleagues at RWTH University in Aachen, Germany, we propose a roadmap that consists of three distinctive phases for the successful transition to a human-robot workforce.
- Phase 1 builds the foundation of the change management process. Businesses need to analyse and understand the employees’ appraisal process of human-robot work relationships.
- Phase 2 then deals with the integration of robot assistants. An essential aspect is that the leadership of the organisation follows a people-first, technology second
- Finally, in Phase 3, management should monitor the effectiveness of human-robot teams in order to sustain the change. This requires an extended set of metrics that do not purely look at profits but also employee wellbeing and customer satisfaction.
Roadmap to the Integration of Human-Robot Collaboration
Understanding the human appraisal of robot colleagues
As businesses plan for the implementation of robot assistants, the first task is to understand the employee’s appraisal process of robot co-workers which is dependent on certain characteristics of the employees (e.g., personality, technology readiness, skills & capabilities) and also the attributes of the robots (e.g., level of autonomy, intelligence, social interactivity, human appearance). Based on a recent study we identified four personas (i.e., embracer, supporter, resister, saboteur) that highlight employees’ resistance/acceptance and how they cope with the new robot technology. The analysis and segmentation of employees provide the foundation to establish human-robot teams.
From HRM to H(R)RM – Human-Robot Resource Management
It is well known that successful businesses have a strong commitment to hire, motivate, and retain engaged employees. In services research, this is known as the service talent cycle which is a guiding framework for successful HR practices in service organisations. Moving forward to a human-robot workforce requires taking a broader HRM view, which I call Human-Robot Resource Management. This encompasses four key areas:
- Attracting digital-savvy talent:
Businesses face a massive skills shortage. And this situation has been amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic. While candidates looked at a company’s culture and working conditions in the past, businesses now must create a much stronger and compelling value proposition to hire the right talent. Industry studies suggest that employers need to address the meaningfulness of work.
- Redesigning job roles:
Frontline employees are critical for the success of a business as they shape the overall customer experience. The integration of robots will undoubtedly impact the work tasks and job roles of these employees and potentially lead to role conflicts and role stress. In order to avoid the perception that robots are intruders that will substitute employees, it is essential to communicate the potential of the robots’ value-enhancing activities during the launch phase. This may require revising job descriptions and clarifying when robots deliver services independently from employees or when they facilitate the service delivery as part of a hybrid team.
- Training and development:
One of the biggest barriers to a successful transition is that the current workforce may not be equipped with the necessary skills and capabilities to collaborate with robots. For example, data literacy is a big gap that needs to be overcome. As employees shift into new job roles, businesses will have to invest in the upskilling and re-skilling of employees to enhance their problem-solving, critical thinking, and decision-making skills. Leadership will have to demonstrate strong support as this process can be very costly and time intensive. However, this investment seems to be paying off for some companies.
- Managing robot bias:
It is not uncommon that individuals to feel anxious when new technologies are introduced. Robots may cause both a realistic threat (e.g., “robots are more durable”) and an identity threat (e.g., “robots look too human”) to employees. To reduce resistance among employees, businesses need to provide transparent communication and enlist early adopters as coaches. Having a peer-to-peer system can help to establish guidelines, or scripts, for the interaction with robots, similar to the mechanism that we develop over time to guide our human-to-human interactions.
Measuring the Performance of Human-Robot Teams
One of the mistakes is that businesses implement new technologies with a narrow focus on the bottom line. The implementation of AI and robot technologies will most likely increase business process efficiencies. However, it is important to include further metrics to evaluate the success of a human-robot workforce. First, as the premise of this framework is built on an employee-centric perspective, businesses need to incorporate employee satisfaction and well-being metrics. And second, businesses should never lose sight of their customers. For example, the famous Henn-na Hotel in Japan, known as the first robot hotel, had to “fire” half of its robotic workforce as customers were dissatisfied.
There is no denying, the robot revolution has started.
Robots increasingly substitute or augment human staff, which will ultimately influence the customer experience. And understandably, the transition from a primarily human-operated to a hybrid human-robot workforce is causing a great amount of debate, specifically that robots will take away jobs. In order to avoid resistance businesses should follow a systematic change management process that will actively set the conditions for the co-existence of employees and their robot co-workers. And who knows, we may all have our own personal robots in ten years—just imagine the robot-to-robot interaction in the Stadium.
The integration of robots will undoubtedly impact the work tasks and job roles of these employees and potentially lead to role conflicts and role stress.