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Wish to introduce logistics robots but wonder about the impact on (human) morale?

Organizational Development expert, Tanja Prekodravac, talks to Gideon about preparing workers to ensure the smooth roll out of logistics robots

The basic unit of change in an organization is an individual, says Tanja Prekodravac, Head of Organizational Design and Development at Zagreb-based HR consultant Selectio. In this interview, Tanja provides plenty of actionable steps to help prepare workers for a logistics robots project.

When getting ready for an investment in logistics robots, it’s important not only to have the best possible implementation plan from the technological aspect, but also to make sure employees understand how and why the change is happening, Ms Prekodravac explains.

A key step for this is good – and timely – communication. This is what prevents uncertainty, fear and wild scenarios, and thus helps ensure positive worker attitudes, Ms Prekodravac warns.

Of course, a percentage of employees will always oppose the change, but Ms Prekodravac reveals the best practices to resolve such issues, as well as some of the best models to help plan for a successful change.

What are the key steps to prevent employee resistance endangering success of investment in collaborative robots – or any new technology roll-out?

One thing that can be seen in employee behaviour – and behaviour of people in general – is that resistance to new technology, or resistance to change, happens whenever we are troubled, deep in our soul, by a concern, or an anguish or fear – be it potential or clearly defined – that it represents a threat.

Thus, a good method of preventing resistance is to inform employees about the change. Specifically, when talking of robots, yes, it is likely that some part of the population believes that introducing the robots – that is, a change of operations – will entail some job loss. Some of those attitudes and experiences are based on something that really does happen.

However, what is important, what we can continually work on, is to inform people – clearly, specifically, with a focus and a goal in mind – on changes that are occurring, and benefits that will be the outcome of that process. This is the way we can influence attitudes.

And what is the importance of employee attitudes?

When we look into the psychology of an employee’s behaviour or when we attempt to predict someone’s behaviour, we can see that attitudes influence human behaviour directly. There are other two dimensions that influence behaviour: beliefs and value systems. In short, attitudes, needs and beliefs are direct drivers of human behaviour.

Thus, when we educate and train employees, we are, in fact, attempting to change their behavioural level, but we can’t be sure we will change their attitudes. Attitudes lie at a very deep level. However, we do want to intervene at the level of attitudes.

Of course, we always aim to intervene in those attitudes that influence organizational culture, operations, and interpersonal relations – everything that is in the function of task performance, or productivity stemming from good interpersonal relationships, because those bring additional variables directly connected with human behaviour.

With attitudes there’s a possible “slight” problem, and that would be that we can have theoretical attitudes. Such an attitude can absolutely influence my behaviour. However, it may occur that I “crosscheck” my attitude against an experience, which then prompts a correction of my attitude.

Now, we can link this with our subject here. In general, we always attempt to provide relevant, focused information, with a specific goal in mind, because that is the way we influence employee behaviour. Thus, what sort of stance will people have towards technology – and introducing new technology, including robots – depends very much on their attitudes.

We always attempt to provide relevant, focused information, with a specific goal in mind, because that is the way we influence employee behaviour

Could you give us an example of a new technology roll-out influenced by negative attitudes?

Well, I can mention a media company, I won’t provide details. They were transitioning from analogue to digital technology several years ago. They had organized it so that they informed people it needs to be done and then they gave a deadline by which they needed to transition to digital technology.

However, things didn’t go as they expected. They had expected that the majority would, after they attended a one-day training course, spontaneously transition to the new technology. However, they didn’t. And what did the company’s management and HR think? They thought: “Well, maybe the education wasn’t good?”

So, then they decided to organize another half-day course. After that second, half-day education, some three to four weeks after the first one, things did get a little better. At that moment, they thought: “Maybe the second education was better”.

However, when you look at the whole picture, what they in fact needed was time to integrate the change. The first training course was the first iteration, the things just started rolling. Then there was something happening in the interim, a slight integration of the change, and then the second training gave that additional boost in knowledge and information that was necessary to complete the transition.

So, one iteration was not enough?

When you’re launching a change – and this is the basis of change management, in any area of application – one iteration is not enough.

The more intensive and complex a change is, the longer the period of implementation must be, of course. And it must be supported constantly so that the, so to speak, working temperature is maintained, making sure that the process is moving on.

The final success of the media company, in their shift to digital technology, happened only when they removed absolutely all analogue technology equipment, because some employees claimed “oh, the digital equipment is broken, something’s wrong, it’s too complicated, and I’ll do it faster on an analogue machine”, as their skill level was very high there. However, only once they removed it did the staff fully transition to digital technology. In any case, this means that we must take time into account.

What can help in planning a successful change?

I can mention some of the important models of change that can be applicable in all these situations.

There is a model called the Four Rooms of Change, which is a great model in fact. It shows the way change happens in the life of an individual, when speaking of a private, personal aspect – in my personal life, with my family, children, friends, and so on. On the other hand, it is also a great way of showing how organizations function, how some of those states of the change process can also be seen on the organization level.

It should be noted that, when we speak of an organization, we refer to a system of a significant number of people who have a common goal and must somehow adjust their interaction to achieve the goal.

And thus, we get to this: the basic unit of change in an organization is an individual. So, we can have a wonderful plan, with all the phases of change implementation from the technological, methodological aspect, but if we don’t prepare well the emotional foundation with employees – that the change does not represent a threat – then the change is likely to encounter resistance.

If we don’t prepare well the emotional foundation with employees – that the change does not represent a threat – then the change is likely to encounter resistance.

What share of employees will resist the change?

By tracking employee behaviour, we can simply recognize the mental state they’re in and what is their openness to change.

We can say that, without knowing anything about the change, some 10% of employees will be actively opposing it.

There are five groups of people, five types of reactions employee behaviour can fall into. So, 10% is actively against – and that’s not a small share. Then we have people who are opposing the change, but passively. On the other hand, we have people who are actively for the change, and those who are in favour of it, but passively. The largest share is the middle, those neither against nor in favour, those who are waiting to see which option wins.

What are the best methods to counter employee resistance?

When we implement a new technology, we should in fact focus on those who are actively for and those actively resisting it. ‘Actively for’ are so-called positive agents of change, and ‘actively against’ employees are those who have attitudes that generate behaviour on the lines of “no, I will not, I don’t want to, I will not allow it, I can’t…”

We don’t necessarily aim to change their attitude directly. Sometimes, we don’t even have the possibility of reaching an individual, psychologically, so to speak. Yes, he is there, with us, working with us, but mentally, he is in a totally different attitude.

The idea is to counter the negative effect of such persons. In what sense negative? In the sense that these people are actively speaking against the change: “That’s not good, why do we need that, it will cause job cuts, we’ll get smaller pay, no one will need us…” In short, they are actively verbalizing their attitude against the change, and influencing the undecided segment of employees.

So, the idea is to ‘neutralize’ them by getting them involved in the process. For example, somebody who is actively – or even passively – against can be given a task as part of the implementation efforts, in order to prompt a connection. To make them connect, to make them integrate within themselves some of those efforts through the fact that something has been delegated to them, that their importance and knowledge are recognized, that they are creating something.

Focus on those who are actively opposing a change, for example by giving them a task as part of the implementation efforts, in order to prompt a connection

One characteristic people have is territoriality, occurring when you are invested in something – emotionally and through time committed, or when you contemplate something, when you try hard – and then by degrees you become more and more connected with it, coming to perceive it as your own. So, when you delegate something to someone, that is, consciously place them in a situation in which they must put in an effort, then the effort is likely – although we can’t be always completely sure – to lead to a change in attitude.

What other models of change may be useful?

The second important thing has to do with a different model of change, also very interesting, called Lewin’s Change Management Model. It shows that, when we implement a change in the system, we are, in fact, acting in three iterations. The first is the so called Unfreeze, the second is the change – the implementation of what we are aiming for, and the third is the “Refreeze”, that is, we want people to accept the new thing we integrated with “that’s it, that’s how it is now”.

Again, the key is to get a person into the first state of ‘Unfreeze’, to make them realize that the change is necessary, that it is useful. If we get them into that state, then they will be more open to what is happening, as they’ll see the sense, see the benefits of it.

Among other aspects, this “seeing the sense” is especially important in managing people of the Y and Z generation.

Are there significant differences in how different generations adapt to change?

X generation has been, so to speak, more obedient on average, with more respect for authority – on average. Research has shown that today’s young people, the Y and Z generation, mostly say they prefer management styles that allow them to be informed, where their opinion is consulted, where they understand what is going on, and so on.

The Y and Z generation prefer management styles that allow them to be informed, where their opinion is consulted, and where they understand what is going on

How can we raise the awareness that the change is necessary?

The four ‘Carthusian’ questions are very interesting. Carthusian questions can be used in group and individual work, they can be used in coaching – whenever you want to raise the level of awareness and insight.

So, the questions are: What will happen if a change occurs? Then, what will happen if no change occurs? Then, what will not happen if a change occurs? And finally, what won’t happen if no change occurs? So, we get different variants of answers and insights prompted by these four questions, which can, in a certain sense, prompt a change of attitudes as well.

Then we move to the intervention itself; it can be through an education, implementation of new practices, shadowing… The best thing is to have a person experience something, in the best possible way, and that’s why job shadowing and trainings are a very good option. And this is the way you go through the intervention.

How long does it take to implement the change?

Of course, you won’t say after two days that introducing the new technology failed, because two days is not enough. It takes at least 15 days for people to absorb the experience, to sleep on it, for the process to take its course, etc., so that in the end, once you stop supervising, the things function just like while you were supervising. That’s why we say it’s when the boss is on vacation that you see how the team really works.

So, it’s equally important to plan communications as it is to plan the budget and technical side of an investment?

Yes, absolutely. Yes, absolutely.

I would like to mention one other thing, having to do with change – with all issues that can cause fear in a person and especially with things like technology. For example, when intentionally unprecise information about a pending reorganization is released. Such information is very susceptible to interpretation; what will restructuring mean for someone – and then various negative scenarios can start proliferating.

To stop such interpretations – and there can be scores; this is a known thing in psychology – it is very important that people are given information that is compact, shaped, logical and containing the level of detail that makes sense. This means that we won’t give overly detailed information, as this can present an unnecessary burden.

If you give too little, then people will attempt to add some meaning; if there is a lack of information, they will try to explain it to themselves and add something that necessarily doesn’t have any connection to the truth.

Thus, when we plan for a change – say, introducing robots – we must think on two levels. One is devising a technical plan of the change: buy robots, have a budget, organize training, etc. The other is the communication plan.

That means that with communication – good communication – we, in fact, manage people’s expectations. We tell them when it will happen, what will it be, who will lead it, how it will happen, but we don’t tell them the methodological plan – it’s too detailed, too technical, while here we need well shaped information.

Managers sometimes completely ignore emotional response from the team, and with good communication we manage people’s expectations

So yes, this is it. Managers sometimes focus intensely on implementing the methodological part and completely ignore emotional response from the team. In short, these are the two equally important things that must be overseen in parallel.

What is the importance of focusing on emotions?

Over the past several years, increasingly more has been given to emotions in the workplace. Ten or 15 years ago, and especially earlier than that, people would say ‘what do the emotions have to do with the workplace, what are we talking of?’

However, we, humans, are absolutely beings of emotion, and we can keep saying emotions don’t interest us, but emotions happen, so to speak, whether we want them or not, and we must do something about them. So that when we shape information, we are, in fact, preventing that people get overwhelmed by emotions such as insecurity, worry, fear, uncertainty… This is because such emotion raises energy in people. Fear raises energy because it signals a danger, and danger raises alert. The physiological reaction of the body is such that it raises the energy level.

So that if we want to protect employees – that is, their cognitive capacity, so that they can focus on tasks, write, talk, be creative – then it’s counterproductive to allow the organizational atmosphere to be permeated by fear, uncertainty, insecurity… Physiology of the body changes, as you have much more adrenaline in your body than needed and functionally it simply doesn’t make sense that, when you have an excess of adrenaline in your system, you can be creative, relaxed, think of innovation, and so on. An entirely different physiological state relates to the state of creativity, inspiration, imagination, and so on.

So, when you have teams – that is, people – who are mentally occupied by processing potential danger and processing their own emotional states, you won’t have great performance and great organizational and team atmosphere at that moment.

When you have teams mentally occupied by processing potential danger and processing their own emotional states, you won’t have great performance

How will the wider use of robots influence the labor market? Some jobs will be at risk.

Yes, introducing robots will endanger a certain share of the population. The part of the population that works on simple, repetitive tasks that can be taken over by robots. And yes, there is the question where these people will work.

There is a segment of jobs that are social, very complex, or require a very fast decision-making. In that sense, these types of jobs include, say, sculptors, painters, something very tactile and gentle. However, such features – tactuality, balance, operations, and so on – are being developed intensively in robots. However, some jobs that combine emotion, experience, cognitive data processing, and so on, will probably be dominated by human labour for a long time.

In fact, in visions of human-machine collaboration, the human is most often the one that coordinates, oversees, and keeps track of, while the robot is, so to speak, the one doing the physical part of the work.

Collaborative robots can compensate the dwindling workforce. Do companies you work with face a lack of recruits?

Very, very much so. Steel mills have been mentioned, but also metalwork in general, even in cities that had the whole ecosystem – Sisak, for example, even had its own metals engineering college, an institution teaching a complete set of jobs in the sector. So, yes, there definitely is a deficit.

Another company in Zagorje [north Croatia] – feels a deficit in the sector as well. It’s a well-known trend. I don’t even need to mention tourism, where it’s so visible that they are actively working on attracting employees.

There are at least two visions, two potential scenarios of what ‘robotization’ will bring.

Yes, in a sense, it will result in a share of jobs, of human work, being taken over by cheaper robot labour. That will open the question of where these people will work. A deeper strategic issue is the way in which our education system prepares youth for the trade occupations, manufacturing, etc.

Then we have the second version, that various robots will make human lives easier, simpler, less physically demanding.

To return to the beginning of the conversation, we create projections in people, that is, we give them information based on which they will create their perceptions of future – that there will be less work, and more time for themselves; that the price of work might be higher, since complexity of work will rise; that robots will bring cheaper labour, able to perform more physically demanding and repetitive work.

I would say that the psychological issues are very important – looking into which types information can influence people’s attitudes. The more negative, threatening information you release – such as ‘robots will bring people to brink of poverty’, ‘we won’t have any work’… – the more you are raising negative tensions. Of course, we don’t want to be manipulative, but we simply want to give people choice. It’s not all negative, after all.

Well, we are hoping for robot helpers…

That is certainly the story of the future. It is certain that you will have the human and the machine in a single business process. Maybe even in humanoid form. However, you know how people get used to changes. You remember Charlie Chaplin and the movie, how he saw ‘modern times’, and how many changes have there been since.

To conclude with a final sentence – we have, in fact, integrated so much technology in our lives already, starting from smartphones, internet, and a whole slew of things we see as technology making our lives easier. It follows that this process will continue.

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