– Originally written by Michel Spruijt, senior vice president of International Business and general manager of Brain Corp –
In the space of a year, workplaces of all kinds have been transformed and have had to adapt their practices to suit COVID restrictions.
There has been a sudden need for fresh solutions to problems both old and new. Chief among these has been the introduction of robots – specifically those working alongside humans, or cobots – to workplaces across various sectors.
This shift looks set to continue, with Gartner predicting more than 70% of global enterprises will have hyper-automation initiatives in place by 2024.
Naturally, this robotic evolution is having a profound effect on workplace leadership, and will continue to do so as the trend continues to re-imagine workplaces. Greater automation will inevitably change the way leaders do their job, and how they are seen by employees and customers alike.
It will impact the purpose of workplace leadership: as leaders become managers of cobot workforces, it will become their responsibility to introduce autonomous machines in a way that best suits their teams and business operations.
What is a cobot?
Cobots do what robots do: they carry out tasks for us, with a view to increasing efficiency and/or sparing humans from work that is dull, dirty or dangerous. But whereas conventional robots are meant to operate in isolation from humans – imagine the stereotypical, robotic arm on a factory floor, for example – cobots are designed to work near and in close cooperation with us.
To achieve this, they rely on intelligently-designed hardware, from cameras and sensors to actuators and grippers, all of which are coordinated by powerful software. In recent years, this software has benefited from advances in artificial intelligence to facilitate rapid, real time learning. Compared with static workplace robots, cobots are quicker to deploy, easier to reprogram without specialist skills, and able to respond to their surrounding environments.
Whereas it’s tempting to imagine that automation will only ever touch high-tech environments such as factories and industrial sites, the truth is that robots will take up task loads wherever strenuous and repetitive work can be found. If a task needs doing with precision and consistency, chances are a robot will find its way to assist, working alongside humans and freeing up time for them to tackle more specialist tasks.
The global market for cobots is expected to be worth $8bn by 2026 – corresponding to a compound annual growth rate of 42% over a six-year period. So it’s clear that they are set to increasingly impact the workplace, enabling a greater division of labour, as staff members are able to concentrate on tasks that value a human touch, such as interacting with customers.
The principal beneficiaries of cobots will be those working alongside them. For example, autonomous floor-scrubbing robots can make workplaces far safer and more hygienic environments for employees as well as the public.
Environmental hazards have been a persistent issue for cleaning staff. According to The Health and Safety Executive, slips, trips, and falls remain the most common form of non-fatal accidents in cleaning (29%), affecting floor cleaning staff directly, as they are exposed daily to risks working on floor surfaces. However, with robotic partners in place, human error and exposure to hazards can be minimised, giving business leaders less concern around workplace safety and absentee rates.
An overlooked, though crucial, byproduct of having more robots in deployment is an ability to inform better decisions through access to consistent high resolution data. In many instances, it enables operations to be made safer and more efficient. Of course, business leaders have always counted on advances in hardware and machinery to improve the way work gets done; but thanks to robotic data collection, they can now get a more comprehensive view of their operations, commonly in real-time and even when they themselves are remote.
Cobots on the team
For cobot integration to be successful in workplaces, leaders first need to get buy-in from human workers. Getting humans to work seamlessly alongside robots is key to implementing automation successfully. Managers need to make sure operators understand how to get the most out of a given machine, to use it optimally so it frees up more time than it takes to train and assist, and ensure it executes tasks at least as well as its operator could manually. It is this mutually advantageous relationship between human and robot that will make teams view the machine as a cobot versus a distraction, or worse, a threat to their own job.
This winning combination of workers and cobot hardware is open to leaders who embrace the technology together with their teams. By the same token, leaders can use this as an opportunity to manage negative feelings that might arise on the shop floor as cobots are deployed.
When staff embrace the technology, get a visual demonstration of its benefits, and familiarise themselves, their experience will improve along with the efficiency of their day-to-day operations. The onus is on those in charge to assess where automation would work best, and to ensure that deployment of solutions are handled with care and attention.
Anywhere and everywhere
With a little bit of outside-the-box thinking, it soon becomes clear that human-robot collaborations could form valuable parts of many more workplaces still.
Several years ago, ‘TUGs’ began appearing on hospital wards. These autonomous mobile robots work 24/7 shifts moving bedsheets, food and medication around hospitals. They automate the most menial parts of nurses’ jobs, maximising the amount of time they can devote to the more complex and human aspects of their work.
Retailers are also taking bold steps into robotics, with automated floor scrubbers being deployed across supermarkets both in the US and Europe. Deployment is also gathering pace in an array of public spaces, including airports, logistics depots, manufacturing plants, shopping malls, and train stations.
The most important facet of automation is the effect it has on human employees, the way that work is done, and how leaders manage the internal operations of their workplaces. Leveraging automation hardware and analytics is set to become increasingly common across all walks of business, especially as variants of COVID-19 linger and workplaces have to adapt quickly to new challenges.
Those who see the value of automation hardware and deploy cobots into operations sooner will inevitably reap rewards in the form of safer, more effective and future proof workplaces.