Will you hire a robot?

I am really excited for our first robot hoover to arrive in our home in the coming days. Vacuum cleaning is not necessarily the most exciting thing to do around the house, so I am happy to delegate it to the iRobot Hoover instead. When it comes to human resource discussions, robots remain a bit of a contentious issue.

In my view, robots can free up some of the dull and boring tasks that can be automated, they are probably faster and more accurate at it than an army of humans. Foxconn, the leading manufacturer of electronics in the world in Taiwan doesn’t hid e the fact that it wants to build an empire of robots to augment or replace the company’s human workforce. Foxconn currently supplements its 1.2 million human workers with 10,000 robots and plans to increase this significantly. Worker conditions at the organisation have often been criticised and that is one way to avoid such situations and a lot of the work is also automation ready.

In Singapore robots are deployed to cover staff shortages in the retail sector by New Kinpo Group. As you enter the store the robot greets the customer, asks you what you are looking for, guides you to the correct shelf or shopping area and can even do a price comparison on the fly and when it comes to payment they can even complete that side. I wrote before about one of my favourite robots Pepper, who also acts as a retail assistant in stores and was used for a campaign for coffee machines, by engaging customers about how they take their coffee and then recommending the correct type coffee pod for the machine for optimal taste matching.

The Dubai police force has deployed their first Robocop, yes this is real, who will be policing shopping malls and tourist attractions. The aim is to complement the human police force with robots that can speak multiple language, provide information, keep an eye out at the same time and reports are sent back to a monitoring station, where potential crimes can be prevented or handled by human police officers. In this case the objective is not to reduce the workforce but to focus the work of human police officers on what matters mosts and delegate the less crime and safety focused tasks to robots. The police force aims to have 25% of robots in their staff by 2030 without reducing the number of humans in service.

In our work around employee engagement, we often have to contend with the issue that some of the work people do as part of their job is outright monotonous or boring and there is no real way around it. Breaks and holiday periods are also a reality and when that happens a lot of staff is re-purposed to do step into the shortage when their core work mounts up. So some of the reasoning behind robots may actually make great sense. Introducing them with proper communication will be essential to come to user acceptance and in Europe we probably have to engage with the workers councils and unions to make it very clear that these electronic workers will actually be augmenting work rather than taking away from.

Robots taking over the dull and boring automation ready work, will allow organisations to create more innovative job roles and more creative opportunities for staff. With that obviously comes the need to up-skill your people to create the required skills for  these newer and potentially more knowledge based roles. Managing this transition and the fears of humans about job loss or ability to step into new competencies will also require effort. Personally I believe that this area is where the Asian and some Middle Eastern appetites for innovative ideas may well prove to create first mover advantage and an edge over the slower more traditional competition in the Western world.