Using Robots in the Coronavirus Era

By Nicole Lewis April 28, 2020
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robot in warehouse

​When Darren Williams first brought a Temi robot into his law offices at League and Williams Law Corp., in Victoria, British Colombia, last November, social distancing, remote work and the coronavirus were not on his mind.

Instead, Williams bought the mobile machine to help him reduce the 45 minutes he spent each day walking from room to room delivering documents and discussing clients' cases with his legal team.

Today, the majority of his 28 employees telecommute. Williams, his office manager and his chief financial officer collaborate via the robot remotely with the skeleton staff who still go to work at the law firm's headquarters. 

In addition to delivering documents, the robot monitors office staff and conducts video calls with employees and clients who visit the office. It helps maintain social distancing among office personnel and at night, the machine takes on the role of security guard and patrols the office. 

"The robot is more useful now than when we had a full staff working in the office because I work from home more than 95 percent of the time, and the robot allows me to put myself in a place physically where I cannot be," Williams said.

Not only is the robot convenient, but it's easy to use, he added.

"There are six or seven employees in the office at any given time and I can log on at home to the robot using my phone, or my iPad, or my laptop," he said. "I can send the robot to an assistant that I need to talk with and if a client comes into the office to review documents I can video conference with the client."

SHRM Resource Spotlight
Coronavirus and COVID-19

Robots Take on Dangerous Work—and Jobs

The use of the Temi robot at Williams's law office is one small example of a much larger trend. More companies are using robots have increasingly to perform dangerous or repetitive work and to help employees become more efficient.

Xenex, a leading manufacturer of UV-light-zapping robots used to disinfect hospitals, has shipped hundreds of their LightStrike robots around the world, including to nearly 70 Veterans Administration hospitals in the U.S. Orders for the have increased since the outbreak of the coronavirus.

At Circolo Hospital in Varese, a city in the northern Lombardy region of Italy that has been hit hard by the virus, doctors are using Tommy, the robotic nurse. The robots record messages from patients to their doctors—and limit the contact doctors have with COVID-19 patients.

In the retail sector, Walmart, grocery chain Giant Eagle Inc., and Schnucks, a grocery and pharmacy retailer, use robots in several areas of their business. Manufacturers Simbe, Bossa Nova, Zebra Technologies and Fanuc have developed robots to perform tasks such as checking for spills, cleaning floors, monitoring inventory and picking, placing and packaging products.

In the pharmaceutical industry, AstraZeneca uses its robots to tests millions of compounds against the diseases they are addressing. Each year as the company embarks on the process of identifying the best potential drugs for future medicine development. Its group of robots will test around 40 million chemicals, investigating 40 to 50 diseases.

As companies figure out how they'll use robots in a coronavirus era that may last for months or years, J. P. Gownder,  vice president and principal analyst at Forrester, said robots can only be successfully deployed if companies have employees who are culturally prepared to accept the new technology.

"Companies need to have the right skills and inclinations, they need to have organizational structures and the right kind of IT organization to help support robots and they need to have the right leadership run by people who have a vision for what they want to accomplish and ways to get there. The organization must be ready to embrace change and that's a very different sort of a conversation than just the technology," Gownder said.

His pre-coronavirus prediction had been that by 2030 all forms of automation, including AI, robotics, and other kinds of intelligent software, will take about 29 percent of today's jobs, but the automation economy also creates jobs. 

"For every physical robot that you have out there, you'll need to have a robot repair person," he said. "I believe that 13 percent equivalent jobs will be created, but that's still a net loss of about 16 percent. That's a gap that needs to be filled by government action, innovation and just a whole lot of different social efforts," Gownder said.

Mark Muro, senior fellow and policy director for the Metropolitan Policy Program at The Brookings Institution, said the coronavirus has increased the attractiveness of robots across several work environments.

"They don't get sick and they don't spread sickness," he said. "These are additional factors in this particular pandemic."

HR Balances Robots with Workers

Muro added that there are simple economic reasons new investments in robots may be considered and the peculiar circumstances of the pandemic add to this. "The emphasis on social distancing, for example, has made human workers less desirable in some consumer-facing settings like fast food for cashiering. In some cases, it makes a lot of sense to use robots to disinfect hospital spaces instead of orderlies and hospital personnel."

He added that machines in the economy are always valuable because they can add to productivity while taking care of dirty, dangerous or unsanitary work. Robots can also save money, have become inexpensive and have richer technological features that enable them to do more.

He said research shows that in an economic downturn, businesses rely more on technology because companies' revenues deteriorate, and that will put human resources managers in the position to meet that sweet spot of an appropriate mix of technology and people.

As the world heads toward an economic depression as a result of the coronavirus, Muro said HR professionals will have to think about the skills that will be needed to work with robots since wholesale replacement isn't usually what happens.

"HR professionals are going to have to interact with technical and managerial parts of the company to understand what the human role should be," he said. Questions include "what specific skills will be needed by humans and how can human workers either be sourced to have those skills, or even better, what training programs can improve current employees' skills to reskill or upskill their workforce?" Muro said.

Natalie Pierce, co-chair of the robotics, AI and automation practice group at Littler Mendelson, said she expects companies to increase their investments in robotics in the post-coronavirus world. She added that this can give human resources professionals an opportunity to have a greater voice in corporate decisions on workplace automation because they understand the company's talent pool and can help identify tasks for automation.

"HR professionals are in the best position to understand the skills workers possess across their organization," she said. "They can and should assess where there are opportunities to increase return on investments, to improve employees' happiness quotients, and to educate workers on transformative technologies like robots."

She added that HR executives should have six-month, one-year and three-year plans and recognize that the post-pandemic world will be very different. 

"As investments in robotics and AI take place, HR professionals are going to have to ask themselves about the lessons learned during the pandemic, particularly about remote work," Pierce said. "They'll have to assess how to better leverage existing skills in the workplace, and even help corporate leaders think of innovative ways to disrupt how things operated in the past so that they can be more competitive in the future."

Nicole Lewis is a freelance journalist based in Miami. She covers business, technology and public policy.

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