The Human Side of Robotics

Welcome to the second monthly blog by Simon Pollock, Assistant Director of Business Operations at Orbis, a partnership organisation between East Sussex, Surrey and Brighton and Hove Councils. The blog will map out the Orbis journey into AI, covering everything from technological factors to ethical considerations.

Posted 5 June 2018 by

Technology has been progressing at such a rapid rate and with pioneers such as Elon Musk consistently challenging boundaries of what is possible, it’s no surprise that people are concerned about what their jobs will look like in the future.  So, with Orbis being a partnership of Councils (Surrey, East Sussex and Brighton and Hove), where it was never thought that technology would play such a pivotal role in our workload, how do you introduce the whole concept of robots to your employees when they’re already feeling vulnerable?  We don’t claim to have all the answers, but this is how we went about it…

As mentioned in our last blog, we had assigned a Project Manager, secured a room that we referred to as our ‘Lab’ and work was underway.  However, we still had a lot of work to do.  To be fair, considering that we only really started to begin our RPA journey at the beginning of January, this wasn’t surprising.  The timescales were tight, to say the least, but we had a lot of learning and developing and what felt like a hundred and one things to do before the actual building of a robot could begin.

We needed to work out exactly what these robots were going to look like and how we were going to demonstrate to our employees why the robots were not to be feared.  They were here to help, not hinder.

It was quickly decided that there was going to be a slight difference in the robots we produced and they would form two camps.  The first camp of robots would have a specific purpose that they would fulfil e.g. allowing one system to talk to another and could be used across teams and processes, as required.  However it was realised that we needed a second camp of robots who would be more process specific and fairly unique to the team they were supporting.  These robots would have more of an overarching purpose which would bring various steps of the process together and could include the use of the original robots at various steps within what they are doing.

Sound simple?  Well it was, but now came the tricky part…  How do we get our employees to welcome the robots with open arms?

There was a very definite fear out in the business, mainly from lack of understanding of what the robots were here to do and sheer concern from employees who felt they would be replaced.  The idea was that the robots come into the teams to support and enhance – to get rid of any backlogs and to eradicate the employee need to focus on mundane tasks when they would be better placed dealing with more complex and ‘value add’ work – not exterminate our human workforce.  However, feedback told us that this didn’t seem to be the perception.  Our people are at the heart of everything we do, so the last thing we wanted was to worry or demoralise them, therefore our next move was possibly going to be one of the most important ones we would make and it was actually very telling that it came from the people working in our teams rather than from Management or from our RPA experts.

It may seem very minor but it’s surprising just how well our next tactic worked.  One of our Project Officers, who had also been slightly wary of the impending robot invasion herself, had a stroke of genius in a meeting – “let’s name the robots”!  Ok, so I admit, originally there may have been a bit of sniggering and friendly teasing but the more we discussed it, the more this seemed to make sense.  We wanted the robots to join our teams, so why not give them a human persona, make them more relatable and turn them from a scary machine into our newest recruit?  In fact, they started to get referred to as our ‘robot family’.  This just might work…

We rolled with the naming idea and got our Project Manager and Process Improvement Analyst to look at ways of getting this message out to our employees and show them how the robots could seamlessly fit into the teams.  They discussed a variety of ways of doing this and settled on the approach that an interactive workshop, where they introduced the first group of robots (by name) and explained their purpose, before encouraging the teams to look at a hypothetical process and place the robots in the places that they thought they felt they could improve it.  Another stroke of genius!  8 workshops and engagement with over 100 employees later the word was out, the robots seemed less threatening and the workshop feedback showed this approach had been massively well received.  We seemed to be having a breakthrough!

Don’t get me wrong, this approach won’t always work, so this is where it’s important to know your employees and how they respond.  The robots were always going to become a part of Orbis, whether our employees wanted them to be or not, but introducing such a radical change without being mindful of how this impacts your employees is always going to be an error.  You may not get everyone on board and I’m not sure I can say that we’ve got to a point where the robots are being “welcomed with open arms” as such but they are starting to be accepted and appreciated.

So let me finally introduce you to our first robot ‘family’ (pictured above) and I promise to introduce you to our second family, the more overarching robots, as and when they are built.

Bobby – Helps transfer emails and e-forms into a program

Alan – Can make two computer systems talk together

Penny – Helps turn paper into electronic data

Molly – Can take data from multiple systems

Freddy – Helps monitor data for errors

Trevor – Helps migrate data from an old system to a new one

Jude – Can automate reoccurring tasks

Archie – Can send email responses once an action has been completed

Dolly – Helps customers serve themselves

Winston – Can intelligently talk to customers for you