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Managing a Human/Robotic Workforce

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managing a robot workforceMeet your new hire. She’s causing quite a stir.

  • She requires less training than her colleagues
  • Can retain more information
  • Makes fewer mistakes
  • Doesn’t need health benefits
  • And she never calls out sick

That’s because “she” is a robot.

No longer confined to factories and assembly line work, robots are coming out of isolation to work alongside humans. One of the first of these robots is Baxter. This “collaborative” robot was invented by the same MIT professor who created the Roomba vacuum, and introduced to the workforce in 2012 by Rethink Robotics. What makes the Baxter bots different than their predecessors is their ability to perceive humans working near them and avoid injuring them. And they’re agile too. Embedded camera “eyes” can identify objects around them. They can fit into tight spaces and workstations designed for humans—meaning they can literally sit at the desk next to you. For all they can do, they are surprisingly affordable—in many cases, cheaper than an entry level employees’ yearly salary.

They can perform physical tasks, but can they really think and solve problems like a human?

Although controversial, scientists are working feverishly to make that happen. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is the field of robotics dedicated to recreating the human thought process. These super robots would be capable of recognizing speech, learning, planning, and yes, advanced reasoning and problem solving.

The Rise of the AI Generation

It’s likely you have modified your management approach over the years to accommodate the influx of Millennials and Generation Z employees. Since it’s not a matter of if AI will affect your workforce, but when, it’s in your best interest to prepare for the AI Generation now.

As human and robots begin to work together, companies will have to plan how to make the relationship succeed. When developing a strategy consider the following:

Humans feel empathy towards robots

Researchers at the Department of Information Science and Engineering in Japan have found evidence that humans have an empathetic reaction to seeing human-like robots “in pain” in a similar fashion as they do with other humans. (Admit it, you cringed at the sight of a dismembered C-3PO in the Empire Strikes Back).

Humans are social by nature and may actually develop strong attachments to the robots they work with. On one hand, this is a good thing: humans will be open to the collaboration and may even look after their robot co-workers. On the other hand, when a robot needs to be repaired or placed humans may respond the same way as they would if a human co-workers was fired. And while it sounds inconceivable, what happens when a human and a robot don’t see eye to “eye”? How will HR address this?

Robots need not replace humans, but complement them

A hybrid robotic/human team can boost a business’ productivity. Rather than eliminate jobs, robots can help humans perform their jobs better. Here are a few examples of how companies have made hybrid teams work for them:

Human workers at Quiet Logistics, an e-commerce fulfillment provider, work alongside Locus robots. The robots help workers in the warehouses retrieve and seal orders. This is expected to boost warehouse productivity by 800%.

The Associated Press expanded its quarterly earnings reporting from approximately 300 stories to 4,400 with the help of AI-powered software robots. In doing so, technology freed up their journalists to conduct more investigative and interpretive reporting.

Fast food chain CaliBurger employs burger-flipping robots that act as grill cooks. These robots are collaborative and will move out of the way when a human passes. While they have the potential to take over more tasks, CaliBurger CEO told TechCrunch that human workers need not worry as they “will always play a very critical role in the hospitality side of the business.”

The future is now

As technology continues to make giant leaps forward, robots in the workforce are an evolving reality. In order to remain strategic the time to address it is now.

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