Since the inception of MHI’s Annual Industry Report, labor issues have dominated the list of top challenges faced by supply chain leaders. In the most recent survey, 57% say hiring and retaining qualified workers is their top challenge, followed by 56% who note the talent shortage is their primary struggle.
Clearly, the workforce is top of mind for many who oversee operations for warehouses and distribution centers. Yet, when considering an investment in robotics or automation to help reduce dependence on headcount, concerns about workers’ acceptance of these technologies are often a deterrent. Indeed, several labor-related myths exist, including employees’ fears of job losses or resistance to adopting the solutions.
Companies that accept these misconceptions miss out on several robotic and automation benefits. Amid persistently low employment rates, these technologies reduce the number of staffers required to perform routine, tedious, and time-consuming tasks.
Fortunately, there are several successful approaches for introducing automation that can alleviate many employee anxieties. Here are some best practice strategies to help workers overcome their robotic automation concerns.
Emphasize Automation’s Advantages
Many essential tasks performed in warehousing and distribution operations are redundant and repetitive. Most employees find these jobs boring and physically demanding. Deploying autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) or fixed automation to fill these roles allows the reallocation of associates to higher-value, more mentally stimulating work—a change of pace many would welcome.
Further, companies that deploy automation will need workers to fill new roles that support the technologies. According to Rueben Scriven, Research Manager at Interact Analysis, companies need personnel to implement, operate, and service robotic automation. In The New York Times, he explained: “Robots won’t replace workers in the near term, but rather make them more efficient and productive. Humans will be crew chiefs, commanding and maintaining teams of robots.”
Emphasizing these advantages to current warehouse staff will help them embrace the transition. Further, sharing the experiences of others in similar positions can enable employees to better understand the benefits automation will bring to their current roles. For example, in interviews conducted by Accenture researchers of warehouse associates about their automation experiences and impressions, most reported that it makes their jobs less dangerous and more ergonomic. They also said it boosts their efficiency and accuracy.
Address Workers’ Concerns
Many workers’ robotics and automation concerns are rooted in the unknown. When digging into these fears, researchers at Sweden’s Jönköping University found they are principally attributable to a lack of confidence about, knowledge of, or experience with the new automated system. Further, the Accenture automation sentiment study found that potential job losses, inadequate training, and downtime due to equipment malfunctions topped employees’ lists of worries.
Both research teams advise ensuring that the automation’s design is worker-centric, easily understood, and makes jobs more manageable. Further, making a conscious effort to listen to employees’ fears and address them through interactive training on the system helps increase their confidence and acceptance of the new solutions. Likewise, instituting a formal upskilling program that demonstrates opportunities for career growth gives workers a tangible means to see professional improvement and advancement through automation.
Develop a Change Management Program
In general, people aren’t wired for change. Yet adding automation to an existing operation is both a significant and dramatic shift that can encounter resistance across any level of a company. That’s why it’s essential to deploy robotics or automation as a part of a broader, more comprehensive change management program.
Jönköping University’s team of researchers examined organizational resistance to warehouse automation. In addition to working closely with front-line employees to understand their concerns and developing training and upskilling, they advise:
- Secure and communicate top management’s commitment to the project, even if the transition is not smooth.
- Establish criteria for evaluating the deployment’s success and adapting to challenges.
- Develop and follow a formal, step-by-step automation implementation plan. This roadmap should include training, developing new job titles, skills development, and adoption incentives.
Acknowledge the misconceptions about a workforce’s acceptance of robotics and automation by providing the facts and proactively address employees’ concerns with training, education, and a preemptive change management program. By doing this, your team will make a smooth transition to a more efficient, productive operation.
Looking for More Insights?
To discover more strategies to help employees more readily accept an automation deployment, read Prime Robotics’ whitepaper that debunks labor-related robotic automation myths. In this whitepaper, we consider five worker-centric misconceptions and refute them with facts from leading industry experts, researchers, and publications.