I’ve been thinking a lot about robots lately.

I’ve never been into science, it wasn’t exactly a subject I excelled in at school. But as I begin my next book, I want to understand what organizations will look like in the next few years, and how teams will stay emotionally healthy and thriving, even with automation knocking on the door. So here’s what I’ve learned, that you might like to know too. There are two big factors to look at, economic, and social.

The economic factors-

  • Robots save on labor costs in the manufacturing sector. I’ve been to a lot of Cirque Du Soleil shows, but even there you can’t find triple-jointed people. Robots have amazing dexterity. However, those concerned about losing their jobs to robots, do not fear. Well, sort of, do not fear. The economists say automation will keep making things cheaper, creating more demand for goods, and thus creating more jobs. The issue is whether that person who lost her job can be trained to do the new one that emerges.
  • Jobs in the service sector have grown from 40% in 1950, to 56% in 2005. Because goods are cheaper, there’s more money for us to spend on services, like physical therapy or manicures. These service jobs are how the economy will really keep growing, and it’s hard to mechanize service jobs. See bullet 3 below.

Here’s the social side-

  • In manufacturing, robots can take over the dangerous work. And, they’re being made now to be “collaborative,” meaning they’re safe to work with side-by-side. If you bump Mettalica, she shuts down, instead of taking you out with a left hook.
  • In manufacturing, they help with “democratizing” jobs—everyone now can, with the help of a metal partner, excel at physically demanding work. A woman who’s 60+ years old and a bit frail can work in a heavy labor job, working side-by-side with a robot.
  • In service work, where most of us are, this is the hidden story: robots can’t do our jobs. Anything that benefits from human interaction, like the trust you have in your financial planner, or the empathy a nurse provides–these can’t be mechanized. We want the real thing. A person. We want someone we can build trust with. Interesting too, they’ve also found that things caregivers do, like preparing a meal, can’t be easily replicated in some logarithm. Intricate maneuvers like folding towels or changing diapers are very complicated to program into a robot.

If that’s true, imagine all the data points that would be needed to ‘program’ intuition, or trust-building, or just plain, human connection. And maybe it goes without saying, but how about missing the flesh and bones of another you work with? Things like– the understanding you can see dawn on someone when their eyes light up, or the megawatt smile your best girlfriend at work flashes when she sees you. I just can’t get excited about giving Metallica a bearhug after a brainstorm session, like I’ve done with teammates.

So teams with people in them are here to stay. We can’t mechanize our way to emotional well-being, which is the core of successful, prosperous teams. And for that I’m grateful. I might just cry.

*thanks to NYT Sunday magazine for inspiring this blog