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Warehouse workers weigh in on automation in the workplace

Research from Harvard Business Review finds mixed sentiments

Automation is here to stay, whether warehouse workers like it or not. As of 2019, the market for warehouse automation –– devices that can pick, sort and simplify other tasks for human workers –– was worth around $15 billion, and that could double by 2026.

Conventional wisdom holds that a new wave of robots will render the U.S.’s 1.5 million warehouse and storage employees obsolete, tipping the scales in favor of employers who could theoretically replace their workers with a snap of their fingers.

Another school of thought looks at automation as a way to complement human workers, boosting their efficiency rather than replacing it. Some even suggest that automation could create jobs.

So how do workers feel about it? Are warehouse robots the real-world manifestation of a dystopian science fiction novel, capable of putting hundreds of thousands of workers out of a job, or can they be part of a bright future for worker productivity? To find out, Harvard Business Review asked the workers and supervisors with a front row seat to the warehouse automation movement.

In a series of in-depth interviews with 34 warehouse workers and 33 front-line supervisors from around the world, including the U.S., U.K., Spain, France and China, Harvard Business Review asked employees about the fears, challenges and successes of working alongside their automated counterparts.

The bad

Fear of unemployment

According to the research, which also analyzed responses by sentiment, four in 10 employees had negative feelings toward warehouse automation, while the remaining six in 10 had positive feelings.

At the top of the list of concerns, predictably, was the fear of job loss. Around 42% of negative responses from workers and supervisors were related to fears that they or one of their colleagues would lose employment.

“I don’t mind working side by side [with] a robot, but I feel that sometimes my job is being pushed out to robots,” said Heather, a warehouse clerk at a global logistics company based in the U.K.

Her sentiment was shared by several other interviewees who fear that warehouse robots are becoming too capable. Already, robots that transport pallets, softwares that optimize pathing and technologies that automate picking and packing –– even on hard-to-reach shelves –– are commonplace among the aisles of the modern warehouse.

“It worries me for the following generations, because they will not need us anymore,” warned Sami, a French warehouse packer. “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.”

Two employees from China summed up their thoughts briefly using the exact same phrase: “This choice [to use robots] may cause us to face unemployment.”

Lack of training

Another common fear among supervisors and workers was inadequate access to resources for training employees to work with new technologies. Ricardo, warehouse supervisor in Madrid, said that while properly trained workers could benefit from automation, training is often the tricky part.

“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,” he explained.

Another respondent, Kexin, a supervisor at a network technologies company in China, pointed out that automation poses a particular challenge for his warehouse’s older workers. Many workers had similar concerns.

“I think I would feel a little uncomfortable at first working with robots just because it’s new,” said an unnamed packer for a U.S. sporting goods company. “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.”

Watch: Robots and the future of warehousing

However, plenty of respondents felt anything but comfortable. “The biggest challenge is understanding how this whole computer thing works and how to properly handle the robots and use the program commands,” said Montserrat, a Spanish warehouse worker.

“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,” added Axelle, a worker in a French warehouse.

Workers also expressed fears that with a lack of training, they would be ill-equipped to work effectively in the case of automated tools breaking down. One respondent said that when working with robots, “we learn about many codes only as the error happens,” while another said that whenever problems occur, “it generally ends up being a big breakdown.”

One of the largest barriers to providing adequate training is cost. In 2019, Amazon spent around $700 million to retrain 100,000 of its workers to use new automation technologies –– that comes out to $7,000 per worker.

The good

Safer working conditions

Still, the majority of respondents had positive answers regarding the new wave of automation. Around 42% of positive responses highlighted the safety benefits that automation could bring.

“I used to be on sick leave several times due to severe back pain,” said Yanis, a forklift operator for a global logistics provider in France. “The automated forklift truck has improved the most important aspect of my physical health.”

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, forklifts are one of the key culprits in warehouse injuries. From 2011 to 2017, they killed 614 workers and caused over 7,000 nonfatal injuries resulting in days away from work.

Many respondents saw automation as a way to remove workers from potentially dangerous situations and allow robots to handle them instead. But automation has also helped improve worker safety in surprising ways during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Read: Modern Shipper Top 10: Warehouse automation and fulfillment

Read: Warehouse automation the next necessary frontier of logistics digitization

“With just the push of a button, the cleaning robots drive around cleaning the floors and wiping everything down the whole night,” said Lanisha, a stocking associate at a retail chain in Michigan.

Also deployed in settings like hospitals and airports, robots that automate sanitation are improving safety conditions in the warehouse as well. For example, DHL, one of the largest carriers in the U.S., began deploying cleaning robots in its hundreds of warehouses and distribution centers.

Greater efficiency

An additional 38% of positive responses touted robots’ ability to boost workplace efficiency, a welcome sentiment for executives who tend to use that argument in defense of automation. 

One worker at a multinational food manufacturer in the U.K. said that “robots have made the warehouse massively more efficient,” while a materials handler for a French grocery wholesaler commented, “We’ve gained something like 10 times in terms of productivity.”

With robots, warehouse operators can take humans out of tasks that are particularly strenuous or time-consuming, enabling them to make better use of their time and energy on the warehouse floor.

“The robots easily lift several tons of cargo … [freeing up] people to do less strenuous tasks, like controlling the machines and inventory,” explained Lilin, a packer at a casting equipment manufacturer in China.

More efficient use of time has also resulted in higher workplace satisfaction for many workers and supervisors. By allowing robots to handle menial, repetitive or dangerous tasks, warehouse operators can let their human workers focus on more interesting or engaging work.

“[Now,] I only intervene if there is a technical problem,” said Thierry, a supervisor in France. “It makes my role more interesting and less repetitive.”

Fabian, a French warehouse worker, agreed, commenting that robots and automated systems have helped him spend less time on work he considers boring.

“Working with robots makes the job more interesting,” he said. “It saves you time, because you don’t have to go looking for information. … [E]verything is already integrated and digested by the robots.”

Meanwhile, supervisors expressed optimism about automation’s ability to improve customer experience down the line. Human error in warehousing contributes not only to accidents and injuries, but also to misplaced products and inaccurate inventory figures. According to supervisors, automation can help remove that from the equation.

“A lot of times there can be human error in the systems,” explained Aryona, a Florida-based warehouse operator for a multinational consumer electronics retailer. “Having technologies that help to improve the quality is great.”

One respondent, a warehouse supervisor in China who had not yet invested in automation, added that robotic pickers, packers and sorters might have helped him to limit “sorting errors and the shipment of expired foods.”

While conclusive research has yet to come out, the conventional wisdom is that warehouse picking error rates lie somewhere between 1% and 3%, which can translate to losses of $50 to $300 per error.

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Jack Daleo

Jack is a staff writer for FreightWaves and Modern Shipper covering topics like last mile delivery and e-commerce fulfillment. He studied at Northwestern University, majoring in journalism with a certificate in integrated marketing communications. Previously, Jack has written for Backpacker Magazine and enjoys travel, the outdoors, and all things basketball.