When thinking about automation in the future of work, many people panic, fearing robots will end up “stealing jobs” from hardworking humans. Although this fear is not completely unfounded — the World Economic Forum’s 2018 “Future of Jobs Report” found that 75 million jobs may be lost due to automation — the benefits might outweigh the costs: The report also found that technological advancements may create 133 million new jobs by 2020. In addition to creating jobs, automation can help create a more inclusive future of work. For example, here are three ways that robots can drive inclusion in the workplace:

1. They Can Advance Disability Inclusion

According to a SourceAmerica report, “Work continues to be inaccessible for a significant number of persons with disabilities. This is not just due to inaccessibility, but also to a lack of transportation and limited access to accommodations at work.”

Robots can help alleviate some of these barriers. To determine how human-robot collaboration can support manufacturing workers with disabilities, the AQUIAS project deployed Robert Bosch GmbH’s mobile manufacturing assistant at ISAK GmbH, a manufacturing company that gives assembly line jobs to people with severe disabilities. The project found that robots can “reduce the ergonomic strain” many employees with disabilities face in their roles while allowing them to complete “interesting tasks,” says David Kremer, project manager at the Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering and AQUIAS’ project coordinator.

In other words, robots can eliminate the physically demanding aspects of manufacturing roles so that employees can focus on higher-level tasks, such as quality control. Training on skills like communication and critical thinking can give manufacturing employees with disabilities the tools they need to successfully complete these tasks.

Telepresence robots can also support access to employment for individuals with disabilities. Essentially a videoconferencing screen mounted on top of a remote-controlled robot with a wheeled base, telepresence robots enable employees to be anywhere, at any time, without having to physically change locations, says Marcio Macedo, co-founder and vice president of products at Ava Robotics. This technology is a huge win for both employees with disabilities, who gain access to valuable career opportunities, and businesses, which benefit from a greater, and more diverse, talent pool.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)’s Sloan School of Management started using Ava Robotics’ telepresence robot to help a remote team member “be more present” in the office and better able to participate in “informal and ad hoc” meetings, says Peter Hirst, senior associate dean of executive education at the Sloan School. “The instant we started using [telepresence robots], we realized they could also be equally useful in the classroom.” So, they began using telepresence robots to help learners with limited mobility participate in a classroom environment. While initially concerned the robots would distract other learners, Hirst says both classmates and instructors adapted “very quickly” to the new dynamic. Moreover, “the remote participants report that they feel they are getting as much as 80% of the experience of ‘being there’ [in the classroom].”

2. They Can Improve the Remote Work Experience

Remote work is becoming the new normal. Employees value flexible work now more than ever before, and many companies are striving to give it to them, so they don’t lose out on valuable talent. In fact, FlexJobs and Global Workplace Analytics research found a 159% increase in remote work between 2005 and 2017.

Although it offers flexibility, remote work can sometimes cause employees to feel “shunned and left out,” as one Harvard Business Review article put it. After all, “We all know decisions are not always made in a conference room or on a one-on-one conversation,” Macedo says. “They’re made in the hallways or in casual encounters at people’s desks or in [their] offices.” Telepresence technology can help remote workers “control their vantage point” so they’re not just a face on a screen but, rather, a part of the conversation.

Going the extra mile to help remote workers feel included can yield major business benefits. Hirst says that a team’s overall commitment and engagement improves when its remote members feel as valued as their in-person peers rather than “second-class” team members. Having the flexibility to instantly communicate with the rest of the team can be “very empowering” to remote workers, putting them on “equal footing” with their teammates.

3. They Can Increase Access to Learning Initiatives

Telepresence robots can instantly transport learners into a classroom. This virtual presence especially benefits underrepresented learners, such as working parents and caretakers, who may not have the option to attend in-person training.

Telepresence robots can also transport trainers into learners’ classroom environment, Macedo says, which is especially beneficial when delivering single training events, like an unconscious bias workshop or design thinking master class. For example, if a trainer were delivering a workshop for a company across the country, he or she could use telepresence technology to assume a physical presence without having to travel. Reduced travel costs are one way learning leaders can gain buy-in for telepresence technology.

By advancing disability inclusion, improving the remote work experience and making learning more accessible, robots can drive inclusion in the workplace. Contrary to popular belief, it seems, robots will not push humans out of the future of work but, rather, help ensure it’s accessible for all.

Image provided courtesy of Ava Robotics.

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