People work better with robots when they see them as teammates

robotsWe might not be able to control our emotions towards robots metallic but fear not. We perform all the better as a team for it. No longer the realm of the privileged US military, robotic technology is edging into households and workplaces at a keen pace. At work, robots prop up teams across a diverse range of industries, often taking on the more dangerous or otherwise challenging tasks.

Teams readily collaborate with robots in work spanning that with autistic children, dementia patients, search-and-rescue operations and surgical operations. And yet, there has not been much focus to date on how to boost performance in these contexts. Arguably, just having a robot onside has hitherto been considered news enough. My colleagues and I set about shedding light on how robotics in the workplace can be made more productive by actively fostering the connection between workers and a robot. We looked at both emotions and identity as ways to do so.

[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]There are simple ways to bond humans with robots and that this prompts workers to work more effectively together[/perfectpullquote]

Indeed, human-robot interaction has become an entire field of research. Some predict that our relationship with them could end up paralleling the history of our domestication of animals. But how can we actively encourage this existing emotional connection in the workplace, for the good of the team?

We found that there are simple ways to bond humans with robots and that this prompts workers to work more effectively together. We analysed interactions between students and robots. The upshot was that when participants established an emotional connection, they took less time to complete the tasks we had set them proving that they worked more efficiently together. The emotional connection was particularly salient in instances in which, before the experiment, they referred to the robot as “it” but after the experiment, opted for “he” or “she”.

Another way a connection to a robot can be deepened is by employees dressing robots in team colours. For example, in our study participants were asked to dress robots in their university basketball jerseys. This helped teams perform better; when humans see robots?as teammates, they are more likely to win. Humans also work better with robots in the workplace if they build them themselves, we found. This is because they have a closer attachment to the robots they have created. We already knew that building one’s own technology has the capacity to lead us to believe that technology is an extension of ourselves. But we now know, specifically, that building robots leads us to work with them more effectively.


More than just happy teamwork

If applied directly to the workplace, these findings will help make human service activities involving robots more effective. Also, a team’s emotional attachment to its technology helps them understand how to make their own teamwork with such technologies effective. Managers should ensure, however, that the bond is not too strong when organisations match robots to a particular team for a short-term objective. Teams could feel a sense of loss afterwards. Too much attachment might reduce performance when teams are required to work with other robots.

We are hardwired biologically to project life onto any movement in our physical space that seems autonomous to us. Our research proves that there are ways to encourage this already intuitive emotional connection to robots. Bearing in mind the widely touted darker side to robotics, this is a happy finding and will only support best workplace practices.

Image by intographics