Research: How Do Warehouse Workers Feel About Automation?

Research: How Do Warehouse Workers Feel About Automation?

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Automated tools that help to lift, sort, and move goods around warehouses can substantially improve efficiency and quality. But how do the millions of workers employed in warehouses around the world feel about these changes? The authors conducted a series of interviews with on-the-ground workers and identified several common hopes and concerns. Based on these trends, they offer three strategies to help employers both address workers’ fears and build on their optimism: Emphasizing growth opportunities for entry-level workers, providing effective training to help workers learn to use automated tools, and investing in systems to ensure workers’ health and safety.

As of 2019, the global warehouse automation market — that is, programmable machines that pick, sort, and return goods to their shelves, as well as sensor- and AI-based tools that simplify tasks for warehouse workers — was worth about $15 billion. That number is expected to double within the next four years, with supply chain leaders in an internal Accenture survey citing warehouse automation as one of their top three priorities for digital investment. Clearly, the industry has huge growth potential. But what does this mean for the millions of workers who currently work in warehouses around the world?

In the U.S. alone, some 1.5 million workers are employed in the warehouse and storage sector. The UK’s transportation and storage sector employs 1.8 million, and millions more work in warehouses all around the world. While some prior work has explored the impact of automation on these workers, there is still limited understanding of how automated technologies are changing these employees’ daily lives. To get a better sense for workers’ perspectives, we built on Accenture’s recent research into warehouse automation with a series of in-depth video interviews with 34 warehouse workers and 33 front-line supervisors across the U.S., UK, France, Spain, and China (interviews were conducted in workers’ native languages, and then translated into English for analysis).

We had three questions for workers:

  1. How do automation technologies help you do your current job?
  2. How do you feel about working side by side with a robot? What do you like and dislike about it?
  3. What safety challenges are you facing in the warehouse?

And two questions for supervisors:

  1. How has automation impacted operations and your role in the warehouse?
  2. What are some of the new challenges that have emerged since deploying automation?

We then conducted a sentiment analysis and leveraged standard data science techniques to extract key themes from the responses. We found that overall, sentiment was about 40% negative and 60% positive, and we further identified a number of recurring concerns and hopes: On the negative side, workers were worried about losing their jobs, having inadequate training resources, and dealing with downtime or errors caused by technology malfunctions. On the positive side, workers expressed optimism that automation would make their jobs safer, increase productivity, and improve the quality of their work.

Workers have some concerns related to automation…

1. Fear of job loss

In our analysis, 42% of the responses categorized by our models as “negative sentiment” were related to fears around job loss. Two respondents from China — Xin, a warehouse packer, and Chensi, a warehouse supervisor — used the exact same phrase to express their fears, saying: “this choice [to use robots] may cause us to face unemployment.” Heather, a warehouse clerk at a global logistics company based in the UK, wondered about her future, commenting: “I don’t mind working side by side to a robot, but I feel that sometimes my job is being pushed out to robots.”

Even for those who weren’t necessarily worried about their own jobs, many of the people we talked to expressed concern about others losing their livelihoods. As Sami, a French warehouse packer, explained: “It worries me for the following generations, because they will not need us anymore…Everything will be done by robots, because [a machine] does not break its back, it is all automatic, it does not complain, and it does not strike.” Similarly, UK-based supervisor Ramsay felt that “the negative thing is the fact that it removes jobs for people in this very difficult time.”

2. Inadequate training

The next most common concern, accounting for 35% of all the negative responses, was a fear that inadequate training resources would reduce workers’ ability to succeed in a new, digital workplace. Ricardo, a warehouse supervisor from Madrid, had mixed feelings about automation, explaining: “I think the more the warehouse is automated, the better we’ll all perform. Robots will greatly diminish our workloads, reduce risks, and increase productivity. But if we don’t know how to handle them, they’re hardly going to do any good.” Similarly, a supervisor at a network technologies company in China, Kexin, noted that the demographic makeup of his workforce posed a challenge when it came to learning to use new tools: “Our current sorting technicians are older people,” he noted. “It is a process of adjustment for them to learn to operate new smart equipment.”

Workers in non-supervisor roles expressed similar fears: Montserrat, a warehouse worker in Spain, shared that for him, “the biggest challenge is understanding how this whole computer thing works and how to properly handle the robots and use the program commands.” A packer for a U.S. sporting goods company expressed a similar sentiment, sharing: “I think I would feel a little uncomfortable at first working with robots just because it’s new…It would be a little nerve-wracking at first, [but] once I have the proper training on how to interact with them and safety measures like shutdowns and things like that, I’d feel more confident and comfortable.” Some workers also pointed out that while leaders might assume that most people have a certain level of familiarity with automated tools, that’s not necessarily the case. As Axelle, a worker in a French warehouse, explained, “We need to learn how to use these robots correctly, to maneuver them, because we don’t necessarily know anything more than how to drive a car.”

3. Unreliable technology

Finally, the remaining concerns expressed in our interviews were related to fears that if automated tools broke down, workers would have no way to fix the problem, and would thus be unable to get their work done effectively. Especially when training resources are limited, workers may feel helpless when things go wrong, unable to address or even diagnose the issue. For instance, Eva, a supervisor at a global automotive manufacturer in Spain, described how “while working with the automated robots, we face challenges when a part is jammed or when they can’t move. We learn about many codes only as the error happens.” As Connor, a supervisor at a large UK-based retail company succinctly put it, when the system goes down and work has to be done manually, it’s “an absolute pain.”

Similarly, Dave, a material handler for a construction equipment manufacturer in the UK, felt that automated technologies have “definitely assisted,” but when there are problems, “it generally ends up being a big breakdown,” significantly disrupting his workday. When automated tools malfunction, workers are often forced to either take on additional manual labor, or to waste time waiting around for a technical expert to resolve the issue.

…But there is also cause for optimism

1. Greater safety

The number one factor driving workers’ optimism around automation (mentioned in 42% of the positive responses) was its potential to improve safety. In many cases, safety referred to reducing wear-and-tear on the body: For example, Yanis, a forklift operator at a global logistics provider in France, told us, “I used to be on sick leave several times due to severe back pain. The automated forklift truck has improved the most important aspect of my physical health.”

In addition, automated tools designed to sanitize workspaces have become especially critical during the pandemic, preventing the spread of the coronavirus among workers whose jobs had to be done in person. Lanisha, a stocking associate at a retail chain in Michigan, stressed that her warehouse was safer because “with just the push of a button, the cleaning robots drive around cleaning the floors and wiping everything down the whole night.”

2. Increased speed and efficiency

While executives often tout the high-level efficiency gains of automation, we were encouraged to see that on-the ground workers and supervisors were similarly positive about the speed and efficiency made possible by implementing automated tools. Thirty-eight percent of the positive responses fell into this category, with workers expressing their enthusiasm about technologies that helped them do their jobs faster and more efficiently.

Steve, a warehouse worker with a multinational food manufacturer in the UK, commented that “robots have made the warehouse massively more efficient.” Alain, a material handler at a French grocery wholesaler, noted that “we’ve gained something like ten times in terms of productivity,” while Lilin, a packer at a casting equipment manufacturer in China, explained: “The robots easily lift several tons of cargo…[freeing up] people to do less strenuous tasks, like controlling the machines and inventory.” Supervisors were similarly excited about the potential gains in efficiency: For example, UK-based warehouse supervisor Ian commented that “automated software makes it easier for me to do my job, as it’s more efficient to use robots than to use humans [for some tasks].”

3. Higher-quality work

Finally, the remaining 20% of positive responses focused on how support from automated tools enabled workers to do their jobs better. One area in which we saw optimism that automation would improve the quality of work was in customer experience. A supervisor in a warehouse in China that had not yet invested in automation lamented that he received many customer complaints about “sorting errors and the shipment of expired foods.” He expressed a hope that his company would invest in automated equipment soon, to prevent such complaints in the future. Similarly, Aryona, a Florida-based warehouse operator at a multinational consumer electronics retailer, described how automation reduced mistakes in the checkout process: “A lot of times there can be human error in the systems,” she explained. “Having technologies that help to improve the quality is great.”

In addition, many workers felt that automated tools not only helped them do a better job on discrete tasks, but also freed up their time for more interesting work, helping them stay motivated and engaged. For example, a supervisor in France, Thierry, expressed the difference automation made for him: “[Now,] I only intervene if there is a technical problem. It makes my role more interesting and less repetitive.” For Andrew, a supervisor in the UK, automation meant he had “less supervision to carry out so [he could] focus on other tasks.” Similarly, French warehouse worker Fabien appreciated how “working with robots makes the job more interesting. It saves you time, because you have to go looking for information…everything is already integrated and digested by the robots.”

Takeaways for Companies

Clearly, the automation of warehouse operations has the potential to make a real, positive impact on workers — but it’s not without its downsides. Given the hopes and concerns our analyses revealed, we’ve identified a few strategies to help employers better support their workers while reaping the benefits of automation.

Emphasize growth opportunities

The number one fear expressed by the workers in our study was that automation might cost them their jobs. Of course, the flip side of that fear is the hope that automation could make workers’ jobs safer and more meaningful. Both to address this fear and emphasize its positive counterpart, employers must proactively expand growth opportunities (and make sure that workers have the tools and information they need to take advantage of those opportunities).

For example, some companies have launched training centers to help entry-level warehouse workers succeed in their current roles and provide paths for career growth. Importantly, these training programs aren’t just about making resources available — they’re about demonstrating that real growth is possible. That means not just encouraging employees to participate, but also ensuring that a substantial proportion of entry-level workers do in fact end up moving up the ranks into management positions, helping current workers envision how a similar trajectory could be within their reach.

Get the training right

Our interviews also highlighted workers’ concerns around getting the training they need to work safely and fix issues with automated tools when they arise. Unfortunately, many well-intentioned employers struggle to provide training that actually works, especially for workers who start their jobs with little or no technical expertise in operating the kinds of robotic systems that are common in automated warehouses.

To get workers and supervisors comfortable with automated technologies, training programs must go beyond simple instructional videos or classroom sessions, and instead offer hands-on practice and simulations on how to operate these machines, as well as how to reset them when they malfunction. For example, FedEx uses VR simulations and gamified training programs to train its thousands of warehouse employees, allowing them to practice difficult tasks before they even set foot on the loading docks. These programs are designed to improve both worker safety and confidence, and they have substantially reduced turnover among package handlers.

Keep investing in safety

The biggest advantage of automation that the workers in our study identified was its capacity to boost safety. But while these new tools can enable a safer workplace, that doesn’t mean that employers should stop investing in further improvements. Robotic assistants can save a good deal of wear-and-tear on the human body, but they don’t solve everything. In many cases, human workers are still expected to do a lot of lifting or other strenuous tasks, and it’s up to employers to provide as safe and healthy a workplace as possible.

One option is to pursue additional technological solutions. Some warehouses and manufacturing facilities have begun providing workers with exoskeletons for motion assistance, reducing the risk of physical injury or excessive fatigue. Newer robotic exoskeletons even use artificial intelligence to adjust to the individual wearing them, providing another level of support for workers. Companies have also begun using wearable sensors to capture workers’ movement data, which they then use to assess injury risk on an individual level and provide feedback and training to improve safety. Similar tools were adapted during the pandemic to support social distancing by alerting workers when sensors indicated that they were too close together.

But even without advanced technologies, there’s a lot employers can do to boost workers’ health and safety. Simpler strategies can be similarly impactful, such as allocating sufficient cleaning staff to the warehouse floor to ensure a consistently sanitary workspace, providing clear signage around dangerous machinery, or instituting systems that encourage leadership to work proactively with on-the-ground workers to identify and address safety concerns.

***

Now more than ever, warehouse work is the backbone of our global economy. It’s essential work — but it can be tough on workers, especially as the deployment of automated technologies brings new challenges and uncertainties. Our research highlighted how these technologies can make a major positive impact, enabling employers to offer a safer, more productive, and more meaningful work experience. At the same time, workers have serious concerns around how these new tools might harm their job security, as well as whether they’ll get the training they need to work effectively and safely alongside their robotic colleagues. As organizations look to the future, they must both address workers’ fears and build on their optimism by working to provide safe, productive workplaces and real opportunities for growth.

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