I live in San Francisco, a tech mecca of automated services and instant gratification. When we can communicate with an app rather than another human being, we do. The only feedback drivers, food delivery people, or even on-demand magicians receive from us comes in the form of a rating system punctuated by stars; one star equals full-blown nightmare, 5 stars equals best magician I’ve ever seen… and so forth.
Like many of us here, I use a ridesharing service to get around the city. It’s gotten to be so that the only personal (aka human) feedback I’m expected to give a Lyft driver — and that’s if I feel inclined to give any at all — is in the form of a sentence or 2 to go along with an ominous star rating. (Example: “Andrew was a nice, safe driver, but he talked about his environmentally-friendly cult for the entire 10-minute ride.” Four stars.)
I’ve often wondered: If a driver gets a handful of 2-star ratings, are they inspired to do better? If they acquire a specific number of 2-star ratings, do they receive a single warning or a few before they’re deactivated? Or are they instead put on a performance plan? How does technology-as-boss hinder and/or enable a more nuanced, progressive Worker Experience and a better Customer Experience?
From ratings to robots and beyond
Behold, the rise of what Gartner refers to as the “robo-boss” — the smart machine equivalent of this guy:
Back in October of last year, Gartner told us that smart machines would change the way workplaces are supervised — a prediction that may either thrill or terrify you, depending on your field (and, of course, how you feel about your current human boss). A robo-boss, at its most basic level — as explained by Frances Karamouzis, VP and distinguished analyst at Gartner — is someone who has some type of supervisory duties.
And before I get all Ex Machina about the impending next-gen robot takeover, Karamouzis has said that while this could mean a physical robot, it could also mean an algorithm; much like the algorithm that keeps me from being paired with a Lyft driver to whom I’ve given a 2-star rating.
“Algorithmic business” is the name Karamouzis gives to this system of task management for workers in certain industries. (The operative word here being “certain.”) Imagine: a tablet, robot, or even a computer printout where there was once a human manager; this is the robo-boss factory workers will one day walk into work to find overseeing reports and doling out next steps. For many forward-thinking companies, the myth and mystique of the robo-boss has gone far beyond if and settled deep into when.
Robo-bosses come with a great deal of perks for manual labor-driven companies. Namely, management will become more cost-effective without stealing all jobs away from humans. In fact, we’ll see the birth of jobs like robot maintenance technician and companies will begin hiring people with experience in human-machine interactions. (The latter part is a little like Ex Machina, but with a radically different ending.)
What does this mean for knowledge workers?
Karamouzis says that anything that falls into the category of structured, measurable activity can use a robo-boss. This method of categorization can get complicated. As a writer/editor, some of my work is structured and measurable, but certainly not in the same way as someone whose job is to manufacture replacement parts for smart ovens. Knowledge workers have one main task: to provide some type of strategic value that doesn’t involve or center on physical labor.
Simply put, robo-bosses aren’t going to crop up in every industry overnight. Karamouzis tells us that, at least for the next 5 years, robo-bosses will stick to work that’s quantifiable and measurable in the way that strategic work (like penning the next great American novel or leading an HR department) isn’t. In turn, robo-bosses will free up workers to take on more creative, strategic roles like focusing on employee engagement, innovative leadership… things that will, at least in some sense, always require a human touch. Robots aren’t here to boss us around in the way that horror-meets-science-fiction films would have us believe; they’re here to shepherd us into the next age of work for both human and machine.