Service & Experience with J. N. Halm: Sabotage the Bots!


…When humans and robots work side-by-side

The robots are here! Maybe not yet in your office. May be not yet in your industry. Maybe not in your country. But those robots, those that are increasingly looking look like us and acting like us, are really here. Even if they are not yet in your country, it is just a matter of time. If what we see in other countries are anything to go by, then one group of robots that we must readily prepare to deal with are service robots. Service robots, in this case, are those humanoid and non-humanoid robots that are meant to provide assistance of various sorts.

The thing about this whole robot invasion is that there are indeed those that are coming for our jobs, just as many people have feared for years. Robots that are cleaning and getting rid of garbage are already around. Robots that are laying beds and tidying rooms are already at work in some hotels. Robots that are doing jobs that we would rather not do. All these robots are surely coming to take the jobs of some people.

However, there are also those robots that we are supposed to work with side by side. These are not coming to take our jobs. They are coming to work with us. Robots working side-by-side with human beings is something that is not so far in the distant future. It is actually closer than we might think. There are already restaurants were humans and robots are cooking side by side, and more robots even waiting on customers. There are robots working side by side in the courier and delivery service, sorting out letters and packages.

There are robots that have been working for years on the manufacturing line with humans, making a lot of the machines that make our lives better. As a matter of fact, in some countries, the numbers of installed industrial robots are interestingly very high. As per 2016 figures, in South Korea, for every 10,000 employees in the manufacturing industry, there are 631 robots. In Singapore, there are 488 robots for every 10,000 employees in the manufacturing industry. This is staggering when one considers that the global average for installed robots in manufacturing is just 74.

One would have thought that a situation where robots and humans work in tandem would be positive for workers, customers and the business alike. Since robots will not take sick days off, will not get moody and will definitely not stay too long during lunch, one would have thought their addition to the workforce would be a win for all. However, the truth is that people working side by side with robots might come with some challenges that we might not have really thought of. Just as people have interpersonal problems working side by side with people, so might it be with people working in tandem with robots.

One of these challenges that is expected to occur is the negative reactions of the human frontline employees to their robotic counterparts. As a matter of fact, researchers claim that when the days of the robot “invasion” truly dawns on us, it might bring out the worst in people. It is said that one of the behavioural tendencies that would emerge is service sabotage by humans.

Service sabotage refers to those destructive behaviours that an employee might put up purposely to affect the service being offered by the one’s employers. In other words, what these researchers are envisaging is that people might become so disillusioned with having to work with robots, that they might begin to lose their minds. They say people will become so riled up with having to work with robots that they will begin to deliberately engage in deviant behaviours at work. And when one considers the fact that the behaviour of customer-facing employees is one of the most powerful factors that affect customer experience, one can clearly see why any negative behaviour cannot be treated lightly.

Service sabotage is already a prevailing condition in many organisations around the world. Due to this, there have been several studies on the subject. One of the more widely studied aspects of the phenomenon are the root causes of such behaviours.

A number of causes of service sabotage was alluded to by researchers in a study published in an October 2006 edition of the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science. The study titled “Service Sabotage: A Study of Antecedents and Consequences,” argued that the personality of individuals has a lot to do with their behaviours. The researchers wrote that those customer service employees with “the greater the need for social approval from colleagues,” have a greater propensity to resort to service sabotage. Individuals who do not need the approval of others and are confident in themselves are less likely to want to sabotage the quality of service.

Another cause of service sabotage is the degree to which an employee wants to stay or leave the organisation in question. The facts are that each and every individual who gets into the employ of an organisation comes with certain expectations. There are those who desire to remain with and make a career with that organisation. Then there are those who are just passing through that company to other places.

It has been said that those individuals who do not see themselves as having any lasting relationship with the company are those who are more likely to resort to sabotage. It has been found that those who see themselves with that organisation for the long haul are less likely to sabotage service when things do not go according to plan. This makes sense. If one has plans of staying for long, it makes no sense to become a destructive force. It is easier for those who are on their way out to resort to such behaviours.

According to the aforementioned Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science study, the incidence of service sabotage is also dependent on the extent to which the actions of employees are monitored by the organisation. The term the researchers of that particular study used was “surveillance”. They defined the term as referring to “the systems and devices that management installs to ensure that service staff complies with agreed-on service guidelines.” This is to say that when the systems that are meant to monitor employees are lax, the likelihood of service sabotage goes up. When employees believe that there is no Big Brother watching over every move they make, the temptation increases to engage in sabotage.

Another cause of service sabotage, according to the above study, is the extent of contact between frontline employees and customers. It was proposed that the more contact an employee has with a customer, the greater the possibility of service sabotage. The understanding behind this is simple. The less contact there is between the employee and the customer, the less likely it is for the employee to attempt to sabotage the service.

All of the above causes suggests that there is always that possibility of service sabotage, even on the best of days. Enter the era of the robots at the frontline and the possibility of service sabotage goes up a notch. That is according to results of a study published in the July 2022 edition of the Service Industries Journal. Titled “Linking Artificial Intelligence to Service Sabotage,” the study asserted that introduction of AI frustrates frontline employees’ judgment of their self-competence and value. The whole idea of intelligent robots coming for our jobs can really play on the minds of employees, especially when they see the robots sitting right beside them. This then eventually leads to a reduction in psychological resources of the frontline employee. This is what leads to service sabotage.

A recent study also listed various stages that humans go through when it comes to adopting robots as co-workers. According to the study, the first stage is always fear. The fear mostly comes from that reputation robots have that they are coming for our jobs. Therefore, even before a human worker sees the robot, he or she already makes up the mind that the robot is coming to take away jobs. Who looks forward to losing his or her job? No one who needs that job. Consequently, the poor robot becomes the subject of fear and suspicion.

It has been said that one way human employees can sabotage service is to directly sabotage robots. Employees have been known to switch off robots at the wrong time. Some have even been claimed to cut wires on purpose just so that the robot malfunctions.

The issue of service sabotage is one that cannot be treated lightly because there is evidence that such deviant behaviour costs the organisation money, lots of money. Some estimates puts the figures way into the billions of dollars. That is a lot of money, if you ask me.

For many readers, the idea of humans and intelligent machines working side by side is quite farfetched. However, that would be a most unfortunate stance because the truth is that those intelligent robots are closer than we imagine. Businesses do not have to wait till the robots get here before they start preparing their employees for how to handle them. To be forewarned is to be forearmed. Maybe, just maybe, this article might be ahead of its time. Come to think of it, that is exactly what they said of the first robots.

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