robot automation jobs

Dismissed workers packing their belongings and leaving the office (© StockPhotoPro - stock.adobe.com)

VANCOUVER, Wash. — As hotels, restaurants, and other hospitality businesses struggle with staffing shortages, some are looking towards robots and automation to fill gaps. However, a new study suggests that relying too heavily on robotic technology could backfire on employers and actually cause even more human workers to quit their jobs.

A team at Washington State University found that “robot-phobia” – the fear that robots will replace human jobs – is leading hospitality employees to feel increased job insecurity and stress. This, in turn, makes them more likely to plan on leaving their positions, according to the findings published in the International Journal of Contemporary Hospitality Management.

“The turnover rate in the hospitality industry ranks among the highest across all non-farm sectors, so this is an issue that companies need to take seriously,” says lead author Bamboo Chen, a hospitality researcher in WSU’s Carson College of Business, in a media release. “The findings seem to be consistent across sectors and across both frontline employees and managers. For everyone, regardless of their position or sector, robot-phobia has a real impact.”

The pandemic hit hotels and restaurants especially hard, with many businesses struggling to rehire staff after lockdowns ended. As of April 2024, the accommodation workforce was still nearly 10 percent below pre-pandemic levels, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The labor shortage has pushed some employers to look at robotic solutions like automated check-in kiosks, robotic room service deliveries, and automated kitchen assistance.

However, Chen’s study of over 620 hospitality workers across the U.S. found that the more experience employees had with robotics and automation in their workplaces, the more insecure they felt about robots making their roles obsolete.

robot waiter with wine
The labor shortage has pushed some employers to look at robotic solutions like automated check-in kiosks, robotic room service deliveries, and automated kitchen assistance. (© Sheviakova – stock.adobe.com)

Chen explains that employees who actually worked alongside robots more often were more likely to fear them and the likelihood that a robot would eventually take their job. Workers who also saw robots as capable and efficient replacements for people also admitted that there was a high likelihood that they would quit their jobs.

So, what do these “robot-phobic” anxieties look like in the real world? For hotel workers, it could mean worrying that automated room service deliveries will eliminate roles like in-room dining attendants and room attendants who restock minibars. Restaurant staff may fear robotic servers and automated ordering systems will make their roles redundant.

The researchers emphasize that the goal isn’t to avoid robots and automation entirely in the hospitality sector. After all, these technologies can be helpful for handling repetitive, tedious tasks that human workers typically don’t enjoy, like washing dishes or moving large loads of laundry.

Chen calls this perplexing cycle of fear driving more workers to quit a “negative feedback loop” that may make the hospitality labor shortage worse than it already is. To avoid this doom spiral, the researchers recommend hospitality companies be very clear about communicating not just the capabilities of new technologies, but also their limitations – while emphasizing the valuable role human employees will continue to play.

“When you’re introducing a new technology, make sure not to focus just on how good or efficient it will be. Instead, focus on how people and the technology can work together,” Chen concludes.

StudyFinds Editor Chris Melore contributed to this report.

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