How Robots Are Transforming the Workplace

Factory of FutureIt’s no overstatement to say that robots and artificial intelligence may change the workplace at a level not since the Industrial Revolution. Robots already are checking in guests at a few Tokyo hotels.

Closer to home, sales clerk robots are coming soon to the Lowe’s home center chain; hospitals are using robots to dispense medicine; and they are even making pizza. Domo Arigoto Mr. Roboto, as the band Styx famously sang in the 1980s. The future is here.

On a recent XpertHR podcast, noted San Francisco employment attorney Garry Mathiason joined me to discuss how robotics is reshaping the workplace. “We are walking from the pages of science fiction into the workplace,” he says. It’s an issue that piqued Mathiason’s interest enough to help form a first-of-its-kind Robotics, Artificial Intelligence and Automation Practice Group at Littler Mendelson, the nation’s largest employment law firm.

Some of the other jobs and roles robots are have started performing to varying degrees include:

  • Interviewing job candidates;
  • Writing news stories; and
  • Even handling bankruptcy law.

But not all employees will be drinking the Kool-Aid when it comes to robots in the workplace. After all, as Mathiason readily acknowledges, about 50% of the retail and service jobs in the US potentially could be affected by the technology in a very short period of time. “What is occurring is going to be a significant disruption and displacement,” says the Littler Mendelson employment attorney. “You and I may very well be replaced by a robot that can think as well or better than humans,” he adds.

At the same time, Mathiason’s group forecasts that for the next decade or two, job creation will actually outpace job elimination. But to ensure this positive development filters down, he says training and transitioning workers into different jobs that may not have previously existed will be crucial. And that means employers and HR need to be aware of this shift in skills.

What Are the Risks?

While Mathiason and others are bullish on the incredible promises this technology can play not only in the workplace but in other realms, he acknowledges that it also raises mulitiple compliance issues, including:

  • Discrimination risks if eliminated jobs are more heavily staffed by minorities;
  • Diversity concerns where robots are interviewing job applicants;
  • Privacy risks; and
  • OSHA considerations.

But these concerns, Mathiason suggests, are not insurmountable. For instance, he notes that robots can be programmed ahead of time to consider diversity factors when interviewing prospective employees. What’s more, he says, robots can avoid the implicit bias that some humans might bring into the process. “You could even pick up heart rate and perspiration rate and turn it into a lie detector,” adds Mathiason, “but that’s another place where legal compliance comes into play.”

In the meantime, Mathiason says, HR is sure to play a role to help navigate the treacherous waters. Developing a communication program about an employer’s use of advanced robotics and other new technologies can be crucial. Mathiason explains, “Current employees are your most important audience since they will be the most impacted.”

To read more of Mathiason’s insights, check out his handy Robotics and Artificial Intelligence in the Workplace Checklist. And listen to this latest XpertHR podcast for help in preparing for this growing issue.

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