Robots can make jobs less meaningful for human colleagues

Much has been (and will continue to be) written about automation’s impact on the jobs market. In the short term, many employers have complained of an inability to fill roles and retain workers, further accelerating robotic adoption. The long-term impact these sorts of sweeping changes will have on the job market going forward remains to be seen.

One aspect of the conversation that is oft neglected, however, is how human workers feel about their robotic colleagues. There’s a lot to be said for systems that augment or remove the more backbreaking aspects of blue-collar work. But could the technology also have a negative impact on worker morale? Both things can certainly be true at once.

The Brookings Institute this week issued results gleaned from several surveys conducted over the past decade and a half to evaluate the impact that robotics have on job “meaningfulness.” The think tank defines the admittedly abstract notion thusly:

“In exploring what makes work meaningful, we rely on self-determination theory. According to this theory, satisfying three innate psychological needs—competence, autonomy, and relatedness—is key for motivating workers and enabling them to experience purpose through their work.”

Data was culled from worker surveys carried out in 14 industries across 20 countries in Europe, cross-referenced with robot deployment data issued by the International Federation of Robotics. Industries surveyed included automotive, chemical products, food and beverage and metal production, among others.

The institute reports a negative impact to worker-perceived meaningfulness and autonomy levels.

“If robot adoption in the food and beverages industry were to increase to match that of the automotive industry,” Brookings notes, “we estimate a staggering 6.8% decrease in work meaningfulness and a 7.5% decrease in autonomy.” The autonomy aspect speaks to an ongoing concern over whether the implementation of robotics in industrial settings will make the roles carried out by their human counterparts more robotic as well. Of course, the counterpoint has often been made that these systems effectively remove many of the most repetitive aspects of these roles.

The Institute goes on to suggest that these sorts of impacts are felt across roles and demographics. “We find that the negative consequences of robotization for work meaningfulness are the same, regardless of workers’ education level, skill level, or the tasks they perform,” the paper notes.

As for how to address this shift, the answer likely isn’t going to be simply saying no to automation. As long as robots have a positive impact on a corporation’s bottom line, adoption will continue at a rapidly increasing clip.

Brookings resident Milena Nikolova does offer a seemingly straightforward solution, writing, “If firms have mechanisms in place to ensure that humans and machines cooperate, rather than compete, for tasks, machines can help improve workers’ well-being.”

This is one of the defining pushes behind those automation firms touting collaborative robotics, rather than outright worker replacement. Pitting humans against their robotic counterparts will almost certainly be a losing battle.

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