A new tightrope for HR leaders: Integrate robots workers without alienating human employees

​​A labor shortage triggered by the pandemic has the service industry accelerating its automation initiatives, which could be a harbinger of what's to come in other industries.
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· 6 min read

Like it or not, robots are coming for the restaurant world—and once programmed, they’re going to show up each day to watch as you drop mayo on your pants and inefficiently shove jalapeño poppers through your filthy flesh tubes. It’s a shame you aren’t also programmed to be perfect.

Thanks to advancements in technology and a tight labor market, management is gearing up for a fleet of their dream robotic workers. Flesh-and-bone service workers, meanwhile, are anxious, and as automation increases, HR is stuck in the middle trying to onboard the bots without sending their remaining humans running straight out the door.

Taco Borga, owner of La Duni in Dallas, Texas, is one restaurant owner who was “suffering” to meet customer demand as the labor shortage left him scrambling to fill shifts.

“During the pandemic, everyone found a new way to make money,” he told HR Brew. “And, more importantly, they discovered this thing called Saturday nights. And Sundays off. Now, hospitality is at the bottom of the totem pole for where to work. So I have all these people who want to come out to eat, but where do you get the cooks? The bartenders? The well is dry. We had to be creative.”

La Duni’s dilemma was far from unique: According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data reported by Restaurant Dive, the 6.8% quit rate for hospitality workers was double the nationwide average in August.

Regardless of why they left the industry—whether it be for “Saturday nights” or the possibilities of better wages and health insurance—hospitality workers are proving hard to get back. Borga’s creative solution was an investment in three robots: a busboy, hostess, and food runner from American Robotech. Borga described the investment as the best money he ever spent. He told HR Brew that the restaurant is twice as efficient, and everyone is happier—humans included.

“Our [food expeditor], who previously had to carry a 20-pound tray 60 to 80 times a shift was released from that function,” Borga explained. “Now she’s twice or three times as fast, goes home without shoulder or arm pain, and our servers are more efficient.”

After a year of uncertainty and trying (and failing) to woo employees back to the restaurant world, Borga has welcomed the dependability of having a robot on payroll.

“People call to ask, ‘Are the robots working?’” Borga told HR Brew, “And I tell them, ‘You don’t understand. The whole premise of robots is they don’t get sick, they don’t take days off.’ You plug them in, and they do the job happily every day.”

Buying into bots

As of now, the DOL doesn’t release a monthly job report for robots, but the numbers we do have tell a compelling story.

Per the “Global State of the Hospitality Industry” report from restaurant software company Lightspeed, 87% of industry operators, owners or managers believe technology adoption  was critical to restaurants surviving the pandemic. According to the same report, the trend isn’t going anywhere. 50% of restaurants plan to use automation to fill labor gaps within the next two to three years, and a Square/Wakefield Research survey found that 91% have already invested or plan to invest in automated kitchen tech.

Big names including White Castle, Sweetgreen, McDonald’s, Arby’s, Sonic, and Checkers have all begun to pilot automated labor innovations.

The problem? Although Borga said his human employees are happy with their newfound efficiency, economists note that increases in productivity could, over time, automate workers out of a job. Today, humans who view machines as a long-term threat to job security may proactively look elsewhere, making this labor-shortage solution itself a potential source of turnover.

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In a 2020 study of workers’ collaboration with robots, published in ACM Transactions on Human-Robot Interaction, one assembly worker shared the mental weight of working alongside a machine viewed as all but destined to replace them.

“What is in my mind all the time is that this robot is going to replace me one day,” they said.  “Then I won’t be needed anymore. We [workers] literally will be discarded.”

Robots are here to help, not harm (no I am not a robot—I can identify the CAPTCHA street signs)

University of Michigan professor Lionel Robert, who studies human-robot teams, understands workers’ concerns. He thinks successful cross-species collaboration is possible provided HR follows a three-prong onboarding approach.

First, Robert suggests businesses suss out which workers are traitors to their species will jump at the chance to work with something straight out of The Jetsons. To this end, he authored the Attitudes Toward Working with Robots scale that measures whether employees regard robots as friend or foe. Responses to statements like “I am concerned that robots would be a bad influence on children” or “I am someone who would find it fun to give work to a robot to perform” predict who is best suited to join a hybrid team and those who may need some more tailored messaging.

“The scale can really help organizations decide who they should select for these hybrid teams, who will want to work with robots, as opposed to who should not,” Robert advised HR Brew. “Or at least they can be aware of potential challenges they're going to have if they've decided to go with one person or the other.”

Next, Robert said that organizations should clearly explain that robots are complements to existing teams, not human replacements.

“Companies have the most success where teams basically take the worst part of your job, and you allocate it to the robot. This makes the humans safer and makes the job a whole lot more fun,” Robert explained. “If you can explain the robot that way, people will think, ‘Oh, this is great thing,’ instead of, ‘Oh, this is my worst nightmare.’”

Finally, Robert tells all companies to be sure not to lose the human touch in the pursuit of metal helping hands. He wants HR to recognize and celebrate the human labor that can’t be automated, the things robots could never do, like fielding a service call without making the caller shriek in rage, “I said, ‘One.’ ONE! No—one. Operator! Operator! Connect me to a human!” 15 times.

Barga agrees.

“Since we got the robots, the repetitive functions move from the human to the robot. Now instead of running back and forth to the kitchen, the servers can truly focus on providing real customer service,” he explained. “A robot welcomes you when you arrive, it opens a tab for you, and then the tab is transferred to your table. But you still need a server to check and make sure you didn’t misorder 15 enchiladas. The server becomes a supervisor of the process, they’ve been promoted, in a way, to manager.”

Bottom line: Robots in the workplace are not a question of if, but when—it’s all about thoughtful introduction and integration. HR teams looking to make a smooth transition should get ready now for the advent of hybrid human-robot teams.—SV

Do you work in HR or have information about your HR department we should know? Contact Susanna Vogel via the encrypted messaging apps Signal and Telegram (@SusannaVogel) or simply email [email protected]

HR is challenging. HR news doesn’t have to be.

HR Brew keeps you effective in the fast-changing business environment.