Tom Friedman, in his op-ed column in the New York Times yesterday, describes his visit to Rethink Robots, a Boston-area company that develops easy-to-program, safe, low-cost robots for business and personal use. These are not the big, dangerous robots that you only find on the line in large manufacturing plants. These are small robots designed for doing repetitive jobs that low-skilled workers have been doing in all kinds of businesses for more than a century.
I welcome these new, intelligent machines, especially if they can do jobs that human beings don't want to do. But make no mistake about it; robots will eliminate jobs for humans. They are reliable (with proper maintenance), they don't take breaks, and they don't ask for wage increases and promotions. However, they are a bore at the company party. In any case, they are the future and leaders need to be prepared for how these machines will change the work environment.
This is the march of progress. It eliminates bad jobs, empowers good jobs, but always demands more skill and creativity and always enables fewer people to do more things. We went through the same megashift when our agricultural economy was replaced by the industrial economy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
This new robotics "megashift" has huge implications for the workplace. Employers will need workers who are better educated, more willing to change, and more flexible in their schedules and work habits than ever before. These workers won't be needed for simple, repetitive jobs. They will be needed for computer-assisted jobs and for jobs that require creativity, innovation, and teamwork. They will have to be continuous learners, keeping up with technology, globalization, and new ways of organizing work.
Company leaders will need to be able to manage a smarter, more dispersed, more demanding workforce. Change will be (already is) constant. Robots (and computer automation) will be doing the simple, mind-numbing work. Leaders will have to inspire humans to think, learn, improve, and contribute in ways that repetitive work did not allow them to do in the past.