Robots or Cobots? The difference could make—or break—your workplace culture

What one restaurateur’s experience with robotic servers suggests about the expansion of automation.
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Francis Scialabba

· 4 min read

Just like HR departments, HR Brew loves to “circle back” and “check in” (this used to be called pestering) to find out if innovative ideas led teams to hit their KPIs or, in reality, were a bit of a bust.

Today, we revisit hybrid human-robot teams—the automated staffing solutions that have risen in popularity during the pandemic—because bots can’t get sick, can’t join the Great Resignation, and won’t complain about management on TikTok.

How’s it going? Taco Borga, owner and operator of La Duni, a restaurant in Dallas, Texas, is one small-business owner who rolled the dice on automation after he said he was having little luck recruiting humans to wait tables. When we first spoke to him, in September 2021, he was renting three robots to help with staffing shortages.

As of February 2022, the robotic workers slightly outnumbered the human waitstaff: four mechanical servers working alongside three humans.

“We have one [robot] that does delivery of drinks, one [that] does delivery of food, one that does our hosting—or hosting assistance, rather—and one that does the bussing, and the next evolution was to do self-ordering from cell phones,” Borga told HR Brew.

Borga said the robots have helped his staffing situation, as the pandemic has taken its toll on his staff: “We started with 16 servers, we went down to 12, to eight, to six, now we’re down to three.”

Though Borga may view robots as necessary to keep the doors open, he said the reaction from customers is mixed. In the fall, he told HR Brew that people lined up to see the bots, enamored with their novelty.

In a recent interview, however, Borga reports that while some customers “immediately understand the use of the technology” and why the staffing shortage drove the business to employ it, others “refuse to use their phones” to order and will “wait whatever it takes until a [human] server shows up.”

Then there’s the matter of tipping—a crucial part of a human server’s livelihood. Borga said when the dining experience is primarily delivered by bots, some customers are less inclined to tip the human employees.

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“There [are] literally 100 tasks that need to be done for a table. But since people don’t see them, they don’t realize it,” Borga said. “And they think, ‘Why should I even pay a tip? This guy’s not going to take my order.’”

Borga has taken steps to mitigate the effect this could have on servers’ paychecks. Early in the pandemic, he added a mandatory 20% service fee to customers’ checks to support his staff.

Zoom Out: Borga is part of a broader trend.

We are the cobots. Ira S. Wolfe, the author of Recruiting in the Age of Googlization: When the Shift Hits Your Plan, studies emerging technology, management, and upskilling. He told HR Brew that, in his opinion, automating reactively is not ideal.

“Companies are being forced into a choice where they say, ‘we can’t find workers, so we should automate,’” Wolfe said. “The problem is, that’s disastrous for a culture.”

Instead, Wolfe urges companies who are interested in automated tech to deploy it through careful workforce development. He reminded HR Brew that these robots are what are called cobots: They are collaborative "automated team players" that work alongside humans. Wolfe says that it’s best to onboard them as such. 

People in the front, bots in the back. “The companies that do really well are people forward,” Wolfe said. “They just don’t spring on a decision like, ‘Effective next month, we’re gonna have a new robot show up.’ It’s no different than if all of a sudden you had a new boss, or, there’s a new employee that just surprisingly showed up at the door unannounced. That never worked with companies when [they] did it with people, it’s definitely not going to work with a robot.”

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

News built to help HR pros grow their impact & improve the future of work.