A New World – Service Robots & Frontline Employees

Chelsea Phillips

A new world

While many sectors suffered during the pandemic, the service robotics market in the hospitality sector saw a growth of 196% ($32 million USD) as businesses strived to provide contactless services for customers (International Federation of Robotics, 2021) and leverage service robots to limit staff numbers to maximise customer patronage in the face of strict government mandates. In the hospitality setting, service robots can replace the number of frontline employees required for service delivery by performing tasks such as receiving customer orders and delivering food and beverages to guests. However, while service robots are presented as a ‘fix-all’ solution for the hospitality industry, this new innovation comes at the cost of the frontline employee.

The case of Henn-na Hotel

The landmark (pre-pandemic) implementation of service robots in the hospitality industry is the Henn-na Hotel, in Japan. In 2019, three years after boasting having an entire robotic workforce, the hotel fired half of its robotic staff due to the robots ‘creating more work than they were achieving.’ Hotel guests would become frustrated when their in-room robot was incapable of asking simple questions that their voice-activated smart phone could. Other guests would be woken up during the night as their robot had confused snoring for asking a question. In turn, while service robots were brought in to benefit the customer’s experience, the service robots were detrimental to the limited frontline employees as they now had to mitigate resulting tensions due to service robot failures.

Intruder alert!

While causing service failures, by conducting a systematic literature review, it was found that service robots truly affect frontline employees by intruding on their relationship with the customer. Frontline employees face ambiguous liability for service robot failures as service robots are unable to be accountable. Instead blame is attributed by the customer to the frontline employee for the service robot’s inability to perform the service, jeopardising their long standing relationship. Pertinent to frontline careers is the motivation to interact with customers and develop meaningful connections, meaning frontline employees can experience fear of degradation in front of the customer, the need to feel superior to the service robot in front of the customer, and a loss of autonomy when working with a service robot.

So, what does this all mean?

Before we jump in to introduce service robots into ‘human heavy’ sectors, we first must consider the importance of human connection in service delivery, and ask ourselves – just because we can, does it mean we should?

BEST Conference 2022 Presentation | “When frontline employees decide to work alongside service robots: a wellbeing and performance approach”


Chelsea Phillips
is a PhD Student in Marketing at the QUT Centre for Behavioural Economics, Society and Technology.