Cobotic strategy must start with people and culture

By Nils J.van der Zijl, VP Sales & Marketing, Softbank Robotics EMEA 

An increasing number of FM providers and cleaning contractors are turning to cobotics to drive performance and consistency in their service delivery and to meet rapidly evolving client demands during the COVID-19 pandemic.

And in doing so, these innovation-driven brands are embedding agility and resilience into their operations, improving engagement and wellbeing amongst frontline staff, and creating genuine differentiation in a highly competitive and uncertain market.

The benefits of introducing cobots such as Whiz alongside cleaning teams speak for themselves. If you want to read more about that, read this previous blog

Avoid the traps of innovation projects past

It’s important however for innovation and operational leaders within FM services and cleaning contractors to take a strategic approach to cobotics from the outset. 

Let’s not forget that this is an industry with a long, track record of failed innovation programmes and wasted investment in technology. Research that we conducted earlier this year found that 81% of FM leaders across EMEA have had innovation projects which have failed to deliver on required outcomes over the past two years.

These innovation programmes have generally failed for three reasons:

  1. A lack of clear objectives and measurement in relation to new technology
  2. A lack of skills and understanding within the organisation to get the best out of new technology
  3. A lack of cultural and behavioural change to ensure frontline staff accept and embrace new technology, rather than viewing it as a threat

So, in the case of cobotics, it’s not enough to simply buy some cobots (or better still lease them through a cobot-as-a-service model (CaaS)), distribute them to cleaning teams and wait expectantly for the results. 

Cobotics is not simply about technology – it requires cultural and behavioural change, upskilling across the workforce and new operating models. 

Bring people on the cobotic journey

Whilst FM leaders are hugely positive about the potential impact of cobotics within cleaning – 73% believe that cobotics has the potential to transform the cleaning industry in the next five years – they are acutely aware of the potential pitfalls. Too many have had their fingers burnt before with new technology that failed to live up to the promise.

Our research revealed concerns about the need to train up staff on how to operate and work alongside cobots, cultural resistance to automation, and widespread concerns about job displacement amongst cleaning staff.

This is why it is so important to focus on communication and training at the very beginning, well before the first cobot arrives into the business.

FM providers and cleaning contractors need to engage with frontline staff and provide them with education and reassurance so they understand the benefits of cobots, not just to the business, but to them personally. Leaders need to show cleaning professionals how working alongside cobots will improve their own working lives on a daily basis, removing the strain of repetitive and strenuous tasks, and freeing them up to focus on more varied and rewarding work. 

FM providers can paint a picture of a new way of working, where cleaning teams are managing cobots, developing new skills in AI and delivering higher value servicing to clients. In doing so, they can get cleaning teams excited about the future, rather than fearing it.

Alongside this, employers need to provide frontline staff with the practical skills to programme and monitor cobots within their cleaning teams. A cobot such as Whiz is highly intuitive and easy to use but it’s still important to ensure that cleaning teams have the skills and competencies required at the outset. 

Approach cobotics as a change management programme

As with any innovation-driven project, FM providers need a clear vision for how cobotics will be deployed within their operations now and in the future, and then to create an environment in which people are ready to work effectively and happily alongside cobots. It’s like any major change management programme – it requires careful planning and businesses should always consider their people first.

We’re working with FM companies that are developing really strong cobotic strategies, centred around compelling communications and training programmes. They’re championing teams that are working alongside cobots, sharing results and celebrating successes, whether that’s improvements in performance or increased client satisfaction. They’re creating powerful cobotic cultures, where the entire organisation is fully bought into the introduction of cobots.

Find a partner you can trust

When embarking on this cobotic journey, FM leaders should look to trusted technology partners who are invested in the success of their innovation programmes and willing to make long-term commitments. This means hard, measurable KPIs, shared risks and rewards and joint technology roadmaps. These partners can provide the consultancy, content and training to drive through cultural change and develop skills within the workforce.

By working with a trusted partner to develop a holistic cobotic strategy at the outset, FM providers and cleaning contractors can ensure cobots are introduced in a smooth and sustainable way. 

Get this right and everybody – senior leadership, facility managers, frontline staff and clients – will soon be reaping the game-changing benefits of cobotics!! 

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