Could your future boss be a robot?

Although it's widely accepted that a micromanagement-driven approach to management has no place in modern collaborative workplace cultures, could handing the management reins over to robots change this?

Most people have either observed or experienced what it's like to be micromanaged. It's a counterproductive process that is demoralizing for employees. Even if it begins with the best intentions, it only creates more problems in the long term.

As teams begin to embrace the flexibility to work from anywhere and on any device, some managers have struggled to shake off their trust issues. The rise of virtual micromanagement and workplace surveillance has been blamed for breaking down trust and exacerbating the stormy relationship between the employer and employee.

Many believe that implementing working from home monitoring tools is a step too far. However, this robotic style of micromanagement could result in the managers losing their jobs rather than those they are attempting to control as big data collides with human resources.

The emerging practice of people analytics

Big data is already changing how human resources recruit, fire, and promote staff. The hidden insights in large datasets can help HR identify issues affecting everything from employee retention problems to highlighting concerns around a manager's behaviour. People analytics can also be used to improve staff engagement, but it's also being increasingly used on assessing the performance of employees.

So-called robo-bosses can take the performance data of an entire team and automatically compare the results.

However, as HR attempts to re-architect and automate the future of work, there is an increasing concern among employees that they will spend more time trying to appease a robot or algorithm instead of doing their job.

As businesses build future success on data-driven decision-making, leaders have naturally progressed toward measuring the accomplishments and performance of their teams to make them more productive. By introducing data science to analyse complex information about employees, teams, and entire departments around their skills, strengths, and weaknesses, many are on a mission to continuously improve their workforce.

However, there is a dark side to people analytics and using data to make decisions that will impact human beings. What started as a positive journey could quickly drift into the creepy territory of manipulating employees or analysing the impacts of mass layoffs by targeting all the low-scoring individuals. People analytics will soon dominate the workplace but getting it right will require an extremely delicate balance.

Lessons from call centres and the factory floor

Cheap sensors capable of gathering data combined with machine learning can quickly detect inefficiencies and alert managers. The result is a working day where everyone is working at full capacity without experiencing a lull.

Whether in a factory or call centre environment, removing any form of downtime, coffee machine chats, or water cooler moments could dehumanize the workplace.

For example, CallMiner uses speech and customer interaction analytics driven by AI and will give staff a rating based on their politeness, empathy, and other metrics. Elsewhere, an Amazon worker told the Verge that an algorithm tells a manager when to yell at them. In 2018, it was also reported in the New York Times that Amazon had secured a patent for a wristband that would vibrate if they were perceived to be slacking off.

These examples are not the way to get the most out of people and should be the benchmark of how not to use technology. But there are many positive examples of how human-robot collaboration can remove traditional biases and improve the workplace.

Could your future boss be a robot?

The technical changes in the workplace shouldn’t be a battle of automation versus employees, both can complement each other if organizations approach this in the right way. For example, machines are better at understanding data and forecasting potential outcomes and behaviours. But it's employees who understand nuance and have the human skills required to determine how best to leverage the insights effectively.

Human managers will also be forced to ditch their robotic ways and double down on their soft skills around listening, communicating, and showing empathy to their staff. Managers should also be free to focus on people-related and value add activities, such as team building, training, and employee wellness programs.

There is an argument that without these so-called robot bosses, managers would be destined to wade through administrative tasks and not have the time to invest in their employees.

What makes this especially important is the Great Resignation trend sweeping across the globe where employees are beginning to leave companies that don't value their employees.

Businesses that get the balance right will not replace people with machines. Instead, they will focus on empowering teams to be more effective. The debate should not be about whether a robot manager can outperform a human manager, but what type of management team employees would choose to work with?

Maybe the answer will be a robot boss that handles admin tasks combined with a human manager who leads with their heart. Much is still up for debate, but the only certainty is that human-robot collaboration will need to work for everyone before it can ever be considered a success.

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