Robots at work: how leaders need to adapt

Non-humans are moving into frontline roles. But would you really want to work with a robot – and can they offer long-term value to a business?

Meet your new workmate, TESA. She is small and cute with a welcoming smile and always eager to help – although her knowledge is limited and her batteries keep running out.

Robots have been toiling away on production lines for years, however, now a new and more sophisticated generation are taking on customer-facing roles. ‘Humanoids’ like TESA can hold a simple conversation and have some basic social skills. Increasingly, they can be found helping the elderly in care homes, greeting guests at hotel receptions or gathering patient information at Brisbane’s Princess Alexandra Hospital.

With the market for ‘social robots’ expected to grow seven times faster than that for manufacturing robots, many human teams will soon be welcoming their first non-human colleague. But will these ‘intelligent machines’ enhance our lives by relieving us of mundane tasks and improving the quality of service, or lead to lower standards and a demoralised workforce?

Dr Nicole Hartley, a service and technology researcher with The University of Queensland (UQ) Business School, says the prospect of robots replacing humans is still remote.

“The work that robots can do is still limited – even ‘intelligent’ robots can only manage a few data sets. While they may be able to provide information and perform basic service roles, they may be totally confused if they have to deal with someone in a state of anxiety," says Nicole.

“In years to come, work will be done partially by humans and partially by AI, which means that humans will have to work with AI. As robots are increasingly integrated into service processes, employees will have to adapt the way they work and learn to cooperate with them.”
Dr Nicole Hartley

Of course, the introduction of the next wave of social robots could have a significant impact on staff wellbeing and productivity, not to mention customers. Introducing robots is by no means straightforward, and businesses will have numerous factors to consider, including ethics and privacy concerns, as well as the design of the robot and the role it will play. To explore these issues, Nicole and her team have been studying the impact of robots in real-life workplaces and are currently working with a social robot, newly employed in the UQ library services team.

Dr Nicole Hartley and PhD student Daniela Berg with the social robot.

Dr Nicole Hartley and PhD student Daniela Berg with the social robot.

Previous research suggests that employees’ acceptance of a robot depends largely on how they see its role – whether threatening their position or supplementing it.

“CEOs introducing robots need to ensure staff understand their role,” Nicole says.

“If robots take over repetitive tasks or jobs that people don’t like doing, it allows staff to focus on more enjoyable tasks and makes human skills more valuable.”

As robots store information, ethical and privacy concerns also need to be considered. But what about the customers? Strangely, research indicates that people respond to robots as if they were humans – unlike talking vending machines or even home assistants like Alexa, they are seen as ‘social actors’ and not technology.

When the hitchhiking robot hitchBOT was beheaded in Philadelphia, USA in 2015, there was an outpouring of despair on social media. hitchBOT, created by two Canadian academics, had already travelled around Canada, the Netherlands and Germany, recording its experiences on Twitter before vandals brought its trip to an untimely end.

Meanwhile, owners of Jibo, a social robot created by a US company, said it felt like mourning the loss of a family member when the new owner of the company decided to switch off the servers which supported it in early 2019.

From a business point of view, this suggests that customers may react to robots in the same way they would to human service. “While this may seem a small issue, it carries serious implications,” says Nicole.

“If service robots have the same effect on customers as human workers do – in terms of creating satisfaction or dissatisfaction, positive or negative reviews – how do we ensure robots deliver the service quality required and maintain the brand reputation?”
Dr Nicole Hartley

One factor that influences customer perception is whether the robot meets their expectations, which can be unrealistic. Nicole says, “If people expect high performance and the robot can only engage at a lower level, they will be disappointed and the interaction will not continue."

"For example, our social robot in the library doesn’t yet have multiple languages installed, but a Spanish or Chinese student may well try to speak to it in their language because they expect it to understand,” says Nicole. For this reason, the team have considered the idea of giving the robot a ‘learner’s license’.

The design of the robot – such as its features, expressions and voice can affect customer reactions too. Initial findings suggest that consumers prefer female voices, though it is still unclear as to whether it would be better for the robot itself to be considered male, female or have no gender at all. Students in the UQ library have reported that they find the robots ‘big-eyed’ look off-putting as they would prefer an assistant with ‘more serious’ eyes.

Cultural preferences may also be at play. Pepper, a social robot created by the Japanese company Softbank, is said to be the first to recognise basic human emotions, but was considered to look ‘too gimmicky’ by some audiences. However, Nicole believes that its design may appeal more to audiences such as the Japanese, who are more accustomed to animated films.

Research shows that customers vary widely in their reactions to robots – from those who stay as far away as possible to others who walk straight up to it to touch and feel it.

Robots do have a gimmicky appeal and one business that made the most of this was the Henn-na Hotel in Nagasaki. It achieved worldwide media attention when it opened in 2015, but later reduced its 243-strong robot workforce by more than half, after complaints from staff and customers that the robots created more work than they reduced.

Nicole adds, “robots do have a novelty value, but the real test is whether they can offer value for a business in the long term, and whether staff and customers will want to continue interacting with them after the novelty wears off – we hope this is the case.”

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