Future of Work, Commercial Cleaning, Cleaning Automation Tue, Oct 13, '20
How to Manage a Cobotic Team

Organizations are adopting technology-based solutions to boost productivity and efficiency, and the cleaning industry is no different. This tech growth and innovation is driving a shift in workplace dynamics, pairing cleaners with a cobotic assistant.

Cobotics is the collaboration between workers and robots, or other automation tools. These collaborative robots, or cobots, are designed to support workers by carrying out repetitive or strenuous tasks while working alongside a human manager. Cobots exist to support your current staff, not replace them.

Cobots must be instructed and managed by people on the ground, which is why it’s important to help your employees understand this new working arrangement.

Below we offer four steps for managing a smooth transition to a cobotic team.

1. Clearly Define How This Investment Benefits Employees

There are ample benefits for employers when it comes to adopting automation solutions, but there are also a number of ways in which cobots can improve work for your employees. Robots can be deployed to increase cleaning efficiency, allowing staff to complete work in less time. These tools are most effective in automating the repetitive tasks that can increase odds of on-the-job injury. What’s more, robots support social distancing measures that keep staff safe. By leveraging robots, cleaning crews can limit the number of people present in a given space on each shift, limiting the risks of person-to-person infection transmission.

2. Address Concerns Upfront

Employers must listen to employee concerns regarding working alongside automated tools and treat every concern as valid. For most people, working alongside an automated device is a new experience—and may even feel threatening. The truth is, however, that both humans and technology are more effective when they work together.

Accenture, a leader in digital transformation for organizations, wrote, “[M]any companies have used AI to automate processes, but those that deploy it mainly to displace employees will see only short-term productivity gains. In our research involving 1,500 companies, we found that firms achieve the most significant performance improvements when humans and machines work together.”

3. Provide Appropriate Training

There’s a reason these robotic tools are collaborative—they require human control and guidance to work appropriately. It’s important to provide training on all features before letting these solutions loose in the field.

While you may have provided training on how to clean based on your preferred methods, there is an entirely different benefit available here. By training your employees to understand and manage this technology solution, you may be offering an exciting new skillset. Offering new opportunities to learn and develop professionally can ultimately build your employee engagement by making them feel more valued. This is particularly true among younger generations. A survey of Generation Z workers found that 91% see professional training as an important factor driving their choice of employers.

4. Focus on the Value of Human Connection

It’s great to be excited about the productivity gains you may gain from investing in autonomous cleaning solutions. But focusing solely on metrics like productivity can leave employees feeling like machines themselves.

In truth, cobotic assistants are meant to give staff the opportunity to interact more with building occupants and add greater value to the overall cleaning process. An automated solution can only follow the route it is programmed; it’s up to the human manager to creatively address needs beyond the clear scope.

This was just what employees of South Carolina-based BES Cleaning did when the company deployed Whiz, the commercial robot vacuum from Softbank Robotics, developed in partnership with Brain OS and ICE Robotics. The cleaners realized with the time saved by deploying Whiz, teams could go the extra mile for customers while remaining within budget. One customer reported being delighted in finding their doorknobs were shining, as the cleaner was able to polish the brass while Whiz cleaned the carpet.

Keep Supporting your Staff

As with any innovation-driven project, it’s important to develop a clear vision for how cobotics will be deployed within their operations now and in the future, and that they then create an environment in which both cobots and people can perform in an optimal way. That means ensuring that workers have the right skills and knowledge within the business and creating a level of understanding across the workforce so that staff are not frightened or resistant to change and are instead ready to learn and work alongside new technologies.

This is particularly important where automation and cobotics are concerned. Given stories of AI taking millions of people's jobs, it’s likely that some cleaning staff would be concerned about the implications of autonomous machines being brought into an organization. Indeed, those that have been in the cleaning industry for some time will likely be able to think of previous attempts to bring new (and costly) innovations into their operations which have failed because janitorial staff have refused to use new devices and solutions, or not been trained properly to do so.

Therefore, it’s vital that business leaders develop clear and tangible plans to communicate with all staff around the introduction of cobotics and explain the benefits, both to the business itself and also to their own working lives. This is where contractors and FM providers should be looking for support from their innovation partners to create campaigns which resonate with cleaning staff on the ground and get them feeling positive and excited about cobots. This could be through handbooks, posters, videos or workshops.

Alongside this, business leaders should also ensure that cleaning teams are taught the skills they need to operate cobots. By their very nature, cobots such as Whiz are extremely easy to train and manage, but employers still need to make sure that cleaning staff have a good grasp of how to operate the machines, as well as easy access to technical help should they need it. Again, this could be through face-to-face training sessions or easy to follow instructional videos. 

What is absolutely critical is to create a positive cobotic culture, where workers understand the role of cobots, see how their own role may evolve in the future, and are eager to embrace change.

Contact SoftBank Robotics today to learn more about how Whiz can support your staff and your customers.