Mark Larsen is the CTO of Verifire, which develops verification and fraud protection solution for web and mobile services. Last February, when he “hired" a robot for his company, he expected some blowback from the employees.
He got it.
“The robot's neural network algorithms analyze a huge amount of parameters and output the fraud risk value, which significantly decreases fraud amount," Larsen says.
But the employees weren't impressed. Larsen was passing by the corporate coffee room one day when he heard an employee say, “This neural network is more useless stuff by the management team." (Actually, the employee used a more colorful word than “stuff.")
“It will never work," griped another employee. “And we'll get the blame."
It may not quite yet be a robot revolution, but robots are showing up beyond the expected places like toll booths, amusement park entrances and grocery store checkout aisles (it may look like a talking ATM, but essentially you're engaging with a robot). They're also appearing as voice-activated personal assistants offered by smartphones and online companies (artificial intelligence that lacks the body of a robot). For instance, Lowe's, the home improvement chain, has been testing a robot in San Francisco stores that can ask a customer what they're looking for and then lead the customer to the shelf where it is. Meanwhile, Best Buy has been “employing" a robot, Chloe, at a Manhattan store since 2015. And Yotel, which has hotels in New York City, Boston and other cities around the world has a “luggage storing robot."
You may think the idea of bringing a robot into your business is pretty cool, but not everyone is likely to share your enthusiasm. After all, if it looks to employees like a robot could replace them one day, why should they be excited? In Larsen's situation, his staff actually thought the robot might create more work (think: headaches) for them. They also worried that maybe their pay would go down since the robot was making their jobs easier.
If you're thinking of adding a robot to your team, you may want to prepare for that inevitable discussion with your employees in a handful of ways.
1. Plan for the big talk.
Assuming this is the first robot your company has hired, you probably don't want to wing it or casually mention the "new hire." Consider gathering everyone around and filling them in on the news.
“You need to be prepared to provide a full explanation of how this will go," says Laura MacLeod, a New York City-based human resources consultant.
—Don Rheem, CEO, E3 Solutions
“This is a first for your organization and a first for your employees. It's a big change, and that's never easy. And on top of that, the new team member isn't human. Wow," MacLeod says. “So, your goal is to get buy-in from your workers—get them on board and actively welcome the robot."
To do that, MacLeod recommends being transparent and offering as much information as you can. Some of the questions you'll need to be prepared to answer at the outset:
- When is the robot starting?
- What are its responsibilities?
- What hours will it be working?
- Who will be commanding or powering the robot?
- How do the employees communicate or work with the robot?
And, it should go without saying, if you know that the robot is there to make your employees' more efficient and that it definitely won't replace anyone, share that information. Immediately.
2. Acknowledge what you don't know.
If you don't know what the robot means for your company's future, say so, MacLeod suggests.
According to MacLeod, you might want to say, "I'm not entirely sure how this will go. This is my first time with a robot, too. It's weird."
“This approach shows employees that it's fine to question and feel uncomfortable with this—even the boss thinks it's weird," she says.
Of course, your staff may still be unsettled, wondering what the future holds—but they'll at least know you're being upfront.
3. Explain why robots are a good idea for the company.
Don Rheem is the CEO of E3 Solutions, a provider of employee workplace metrics and manager training that helps organizations build engaged, high-performance cultures. Rheem says that if you're bringing a robot into the company, employees need to be clear why the company needs it.
“Have conversations with employees about why robotics is a good idea," he says. “You can stay competitive, you protect employees from the most dangerous or repetitive work, reduce excessive workload, increase productivity…"
He says these conversations should happen well in advance of the robot's arrival, and that you'd do well to ask employees to help make this evolution in the workplace successful.
4. Explain why robots are a good idea for the employees.
This may be the most important step of them all. Your staff probably cares about your company and wants it to succeed—but they also don't want to lose their jobs. So if there are benefits for them, make that clear, MacLeod says.
“Answer the question, stated or implied: What's in it for me?" MacLeod says.
If the robot or robots will make employees' lives easier by taking away mind-numbing, tedious tasks so they can do more interesting and substantial work, they're more likely be excited about the change.
5. Use humor.
You might as well!
At the start, you don't want to be too light-hearted since your employees may be genuinely concerned. But if you have a robot coming into your company, humor can go a long way in diffusing any tension. And often the wisecracks you make have the added benefit of being true.
For instance, MacLeod says that you may want to point out that since robots don't have interpersonal skills, “there's no need to waste time getting to know him… her… it."
She also adds that if an employee asks the robot to do more work, it won't complain.
When Larsen had the big talk with his team, employees wanted to know if they'd be held responsible if the robot they worked with made a mistake.
“No," Larsen said. “The robot will be punished."
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