Automation: A Help or Hindrance for Employees?

By Lin Grensing-Pophal May 9, 2022
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Chipotle store

​"The robots are taking our jobs!" is by now a not-unfamiliar lament in many workplaces. And in truth, we've all been exposed to situations where technology is taking the place of people—self-checkout lines in grocery stores, chatbots that ask and answer questions on various websites, software that does the job of some accountants and tax preparers, and the list could go on.

But is technology replacing employees, or is it helping them?

Chipotle Introduces Chippy

In March, Chipotle announced that it was introducing an autonomous kitchen assistant—Chippy—that would take on the task of making tortilla chips, a task that employees previously performed. Marissa Andrada, Chipotle's chief diversity, inclusion and people officer, says Chippy is intended to be a help to employees.

"Chipotle is always seeking innovative solutions to improve the employee experience and remove friction in restaurants," Andrada said. "We make our chips fresh in-house all throughout the day, and the process is a monotonous, labor-intensive task that doesn't excite the crew as much as other functions. Integrating AI to the chip station removes teams from this function, allowing them to focus on the culinary duties that drove them to join Chipotle."

It's a fair point and one that other employers, and employees, point to when discussing the role technology can play as an aid to employees—and an opportunity for them to take on higher-level, more-challenging tasks and roles.

Chipotle is testing this process and gathering input from employees and customers before considering a larger rollout. "Our restaurant employees are excited at the prospect of having a co-biotic relationship with Chippy, working alongside the kitchen assistant in the restaurant," Andrada said.

Making robot/human relationships work effectively, of course, requires trust, transparency and communication.

The Importance of Clear and Open Communication

Employers want to take advantage of technology when appropriate and feasible to help drive down the costs of doing business. Their human resources clearly make up a significant percentage of those costs.

But at the same time, employers also need to be concerned about attracting and retaining talent. No company wants to see a massive outflux of employees who seek jobs elsewhere because they're worried that technology is about to take their place.

Understanding the importance of communication at every stage of the technology adoption process can help.

Sanya Nagpal is the head of human resources at Leena AI, an autonomous conversational artificial intelligence-backed platform that helps companies improve the employee experience. When considering or introducing any kind of technology that has the potential to change, or eliminate, employee tasks, transparent communication is key, Nagpal noted. Employers, she said, "need to be clear about the reasons for digital transformation and its benefits. Employees need to know how adopting digital tools will assist them with their work and day-to-day activities at the workplace."

It's also important to understand that employees may have concerns and insecurities, even if they don't openly express them.

Focus on Benefits, Address Concerns

Technology can bring big benefits to employers and employees. But employers need to clearly communicate those benefits in ways that will resonate with employees.

Nagpal advises employers to:

  • Host training and development sessions to answer those concerns.
  • Inform employees about the reasons and outcomes of technology implementation.
  • Consider one-on-one calls with employees who have raised concerns to address those concerns at a personal level.

Taking steps to bring concerns out in the open is the best way employers can address insecurities that are natural when any type of change occurs in the workplace—especially changes that, at least on the surface, seem to have the potential to negatively impact employees.

Slingshot is a software and app development firm that has been in business since 2005. In the beginning, it saw a lot of negative side effects from AI implementations—employees didn't want to use the new systems, the systems didn't solve their problems effectively and implementing the changes took more time than originally budgeted.

Over time, though, that has changed thanks to upfront user feedback, specifically from user interviews and user testing. Getting employees directly involved not only has the potential to ease their concerns, but also provides critical input to help ensure the implementation will actually achieve the results intended and perform as expected.

When Technology Is a Hindrance

Technology implementations don't always go as planned. Sometimes the supposed solution to a problem creates more problems. 

That's an issue that Teri Shern, co-founder of ConexBoxes, said she faced when new technology was introduced at the company at the beginning of the pandemic. Rather than help, the technology actually caused "a major decline in productivity," she said. While the company saw the need for digitization, she added, "I think our employees weren't ready for that many aspects of our business to be digitized."

The company had initially checked with employees to see if they would welcome technology to help them, but the implementation ended up slowing things down.

"There were issues that were caused as a result of the technology:; Sometimes it was a bit slow, and some employees struggled to get used to it," Shern said. "Simply put, it didn't work."

How the company responded sent a strong message to employees about the value of their input—and their value to the company. ConexBoxes removed the technology. "Sometimes it's better to do things the way you were already doing them," Shern said. "Sure, you can bring in tech here and there slowly and have your employees get used to it and then improve their productivity, but sometimes tech just doesn't work for your business—and you need to recognize that when it happens."

Doing so can send a powerful message to employees, boosting trust that will come into play the next time a technology solution is considered.

Lin Grensing-Pophal is a freelance writer in Chippewa Falls, Wis.

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