With employee engagement at seemingly rock bottom levels, it’s perhaps not surprising that a great deal of time and effort has gone into trying to make workforces happier places. It’s perhaps rare for these efforts to include a robot however, yet that is exactly what a team of researchers from UNSW Sydney are proposing.
They’ve developed a social robot to be deployed at the Fuji Xerox R&D facility in Japan. The device is designed to support employees and promote collaboration between them.
The robot has already undergone testing and will in the lab, but will now be placed in real-life scenarios to test audience reactions. Data from these experiments will support further development.
The aim of the robot is to interact with employees, especially in the performance of routine, administrative tasks that employees generally dislike. This will hopefully free them up to work on more creative tasks.
“If you look at an average office worker at the moment, almost 70-80% of their time they are not doing the work they should be doing,” the team say. “They are looking for documents or for the right person to ask about a particular problem.”
The robot is designed to help with that, fitting in naturally in the workplace to support without disturbing the workforce. Moving beyond that, the team hope to develop the robot to be able to support collaboration and general employee wellbeing.
Key to this effort will be synchronisation of team members, and especially the break down of barriers between employees that can hinder collaboration.
“If you are calm and able to synchronise with your team members then your productivity will improve, and this is what we are looking for. We are not looking for drones, we are looking for creators and innovators,” the team explain.
The emotional wellbeing of employees will be supported by providing companionship, giving employees subtle support that facilitates positive arousal.
Suffice to say, the team don’t intend their robots to replace any human workers at all, but rather to complement and support them so that their work can be more creative and fulfilling.
“We are not interested in building machines that will replace humans, we are interested in creating systems that enhance humans. It is to connect people. It sounds like an oxymoron asking a robot to connect people, but there can be less stigma attached when a physical agent connects people,” they say.
It’s incredibly early days for the project, and it is operating in a country where acceptance of robots is perhaps higher than anywhere else. It is however an interesting project and one that might be worth keeping an eye on to see if it spreads to other countries and other workplaces.