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Whether it’s manufacturing, food service, healthcare, or virtually any other industry, maximizing work output is always a priority. But of course, that can come at a price—in theory, lengthening an employee’s shift by an hour can make him or her more “productive.” But this can also have a negative effect on employee morale.

Recent studies have revealed the tangible impact that satisfied employees can have on a business’s bottom line. “Employee disengagement” has been shown to cost U.S. businesses in the range of $300 billion annually, with another study showing a strong positive correlation between profits and employees’ feelings about their organizations.

In hospitals in particular, the effects of employee morale extend beyond the financial spreadsheet—a 2009 study out of the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health found that employee morale was the biggest factor in patient satisfaction among that year’s Malcolm Baldridge National Quality Award winners. How were these facilities able to raise employee morale? Their leaders weren’t afraid of making new, unusual changes to their clinical processes in order to eliminate errors and duplicated tasks.

It’s no secret that automation is expected to have a profound effect on worker efficiency in the coming decades. But as decision makers consider investing in robotics and other advanced systems, uncertainty surrounds the issue of cultural receptivity: Will robots make employees feel undervalued? Is automation inherently threatening technical skill?

Manufacturing a Happy Workforce

Manufacturing is one industry that’s perhaps best positioned to benefit from automation, and a recent study out of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) suggests that automation, to the surprise of many, actually has a positive effect on employee morale. Much like pharmacists and nurses in busy hospitals, manufacturing employees have traditionally been burdened by tedious tasks like “aisle-running,” taking time away from more specialized responsibilities.

In the study, groups of two human workers were paired with a robot to perform tasks under three conditions: One in which the humans completed and assigned all tasks, one in which the robot assigned all tasks fully autonomously, and one hybrid model in which the humans and robot would delegate tasks to one another.

In turns out that the workers preferred the fully autonomous robot condition—claiming that the robots “better understood them” and “improved the efficiency of the team.” According to the researchers, the study revealed that giving machines more autonomy helped the employer find that “sweet spot” between satisfied employees and productive ones.

You can watch a video summary of the CSAIL study here:  Watch the video

Healthcare’s Assembly Line

What can we take away from these findings? First, these lessons shouldn’t be restricted exclusively to industrial manufacturing applications. Today, hundreds of hospitals are using Aethon’s TUG robots to automate the hospital supply chain by transporting dirty dishes, sheets, meals, and medications to and from patients.

Like manufacturing, the process of administering medical care is a collaboration, requiring the cooperation and expertise of the entire clinical team.  Supporting this clinical team requires constant material movement and management.  In this way it’s similar to an assembly line: A physical product must get from points A to B to C, with multiple stops, checks, and tasks along the way—TUG automates the logistics; specialized employees execute the tasks.

The most successful applications of automation today eliminate the need to come up with a unique plan of action every time. When the game plan is developed by a robot, employees can do more of what they’re trained to do, like administer high quality healthcare with a personal touch. Empowering employees with that responsibility can do wonders for employee morale—unlike robots, a happy employee makes a more productive one.