Robots, common in manufacturing jobs, increasingly spread to office professions: Humanoid or human-like robots already perform tasks in hotels, in stores, and in restaurants. They cook, serve, or advise customers. They communicate like humans via speech, gestures, and sometimes even facial expressions. In Japan, China, and increasingly in the US, a real robot hype can be observed — in the US and Japan almost half, in the UK around a third of today’s occupations are at risk of being replaced by robots/in the process of robotization.
This trend is on the verge of being transferred to Germany, and motivated by reducing personnel costs dramatically. “But many companies are deploying robots in an unreflected manner, without knowing beforehand what these changes mean for either employees, corporate culture, or customer relationships,” Professor Ruth Stock-Homburg, Institute of Marketing & Human Resource Management, Department of Law and Economics of TU Darmstadt, warns. Surprisingly, these dramatic changes happen against the background that employees and corporate culture are in fact top success drivers of today’s companies.
Reluctance against Robotic Team Members
“The sense and nonsense of deploying robots in office and service professions highly depends on the characteristics of the task,” Stock-Homburg states. 82 % of respondents considered robots as valuable support in performing daily, routine-based work tasks, but only two out of three respondents believe they would have fun working with robots. Around half of the respondents suspect robots of being easy to use. In terms of creativity or emotions in a work context, robots given little credit: after all, more than 80 % of respondents believe that robots can express emotions; more than 30 % even believe that robots are able to recognize feelings or be creative. A surprisingly high percentage against the background that so far, both creative and emotional behaviors of robots are largely programmed and do not emerge autonomously. Here, today’s technical knowledge and subjective perceptions of robots are significantly apart. In addition, many respondents anticipate that “artificial intelligence” will soon enable self-learning and autonomous behaviors of robots.
The question to which extent today’s office workers would accept robots, was investigated in a cultural comparison between Germany and the US: More than 60 % of the respondents in both countries can imagine to be supported by a robot assistant. However, in this case the robot is expected to perform rather repetitive, unpleasant tasks, such as filing and documentation, appointment bookings, and messenger or research services.
Interestingly, 21 % of respondents would trust a robot more than a human counterpart. Reasons can be found in lower error rates, higher predictability, and continuity in behavior. However, the majority of respondents would not like a robot to express emotions at work: “Otherwise, I would turn that thing off,” the tenor of the respondents on this issue. At eye level as colleagues, only every third person would accept a robot: “Robots can only make programmed decisions; their autonomy is very limited,” said one respondent. One can imagine that robots provide information in meetings, take notes, or act as company database that immediately provide facts. The majority of respondents suspect robots to be unable to link complex issues or have detailed conversations with employees.
As a leader, robots are almost taboo: After all, 15% of American respondents and 8 % of German respondents would accept a humanoid robot boss. Why so few? “A robot has no empathy for my family situation or other concerns that radiate into the job” an interviewee expresses. “A machine cannot judge a man… and cannot serve as role model,” argues another respondent. Those individuals who can imagine a Robo-boss, name lower errors rates and subjectivity as reasons. “Robots are just and less moody,” elaborates one respondent.
According to Professor Stock-Homburg, robotics will make many classic jobs expendable. “But new and more conceptual jobs for our future generations will automatically be created. Companies should elicit these future jobs at an early stage and create new occupational fields before deploying robots.” The Darmstadt Future of Work-Study (2016) also shows that companies that deal intensively with new occupational fields are more successful.
New Service Age
Will robots start a new service era? The answer according to the study series is “Definitely yes,” says Moritz Merkle, member of the research team in Darmstadt, “75 % of our respondents would accept services by a robot as a customer.” And in Merkle’s experimental series with around 300 participants, a humanoid reception robot scored nearly identical in terms of customer satisfaction levels and only slightly lower in terms of service quality than its human counterparts.
Most respondents can imagine service robots as receptionists at information desks, as cashiers in supermarkets and car rentals, at the counter of train stations, airports, or even banks, as well as in catering. However, more than 80 % of the respondents prefer personal contact with people for sensitive, personal services, such as complex financial consultations, psychological or medical care. “In the future, people will remain central — robots will initially stay means to an end,” says Jasmine Plechatsch, CEO of Leap in Time and co-founder of the Future Innovation Lab.
Facts about the study series “Robots@work4.0”:
· 2 experiments with 300 participants overall
· 2 surveys with more than 400 managers and employees in Germany and in the US
· 3 qualitative studies with 80 interviewees