COVID-19 has accelerated a few foreseeable changes that the service industry expected for the future. For example, more consumers have wanted delivery service since the pandemic hit in March. Restaurants, hotels, airlines, retailers, and shopping malls have extended their current contactless self-service offerings through mobile apps, kiosks, facial recognition, and palm recognition technologies.

To embrace the growing demand for delivery and contactless self-service, many fast-food chains also introduced new restaurant designs, featuring double- or triple-drive-thru lanes, conveyor belt delivery, and food lockers for pickup orders. In Chipotle’s case, its new digital-only restaurant only focuses on delivery and pickup services with no dining rooms.

Machines are replacing humans in the workplace even before the pandemic

Machines and robots are capable of doing a wide range of service jobs for humans. To name a few examples, restaurants and hotels can now use machines to:

  • Accept and manage reservations.
  • Manage customers in queues after they perform self-check-in.
  • Direct customers to the assigned seats or guestrooms.
  • Take orders or service requests.
  • Prepare the amenities or cook the food.
  • Deliver the service items/food to a table in a restaurant or a guestroom in a hotel.
  • Deliver dirty dishes or laundries to the kitchen or back of the house for cleaning.
  • Automatically wash the dirty dishes and sort them after they are cleaned.
  • Collect payment and feedback from customers.

Machines produce consistent outputs with minimal variations. Consumers also like making requests on their handheld devices because that gives them a sense of “control” over the service-delivery process. Meanwhile, consumers become more engaged as they are part of the co-creation process of the service product.

Moreover, using machines instead of humans can help service providers cut labor costs. The increase of minimum wage will no longer be a significant concern for the business that relies on machines to deliver service.

What types of jobs are at risk

Jobs that involve repetitive duties, e.g., tasks reacting to a specific situation, are probably at high risk of being replaced by machines. Back in the 1950s and ‘60s, when robotic arms were introduced in factories as a means of industrial development, many assembly line workers lost their jobs over machines.

Today’s robotics has reached a new level of sophistication. Automation in manufactories is no longer a concern.

Looking ahead, it is predicted that such occupations as taxi/bus/truck driver, mail sorter, office clerk, parking enforcement, meter reader, data entry, restaurant server, cashier, among others, are the jobs that might not exist in the next 50 years. The pandemic simply accelerated the adoption of automatic technology in the service industry.

Jobs that will not get replaced easily by machines

Jobs that require sympathy, creative thinking, and sophisticated problem-solving skills will have better luck, in my opinion. Machines can “think straight,” which are operated through programming. Humans can do a better job of finding creative solutions to a solve complex issue.

For instance, well-trained staff in hotels can do a superior job than machines in delivering impeccable service. Imagine a traveler coming to a guest service agent in a hotel, saying that s/he just found a hole in the only business suit s/he carries, but s/he needs to meet a really important client in 10 minutes. Within a few seconds, the guest service agent must develop the best solution for the guest, usually in a very creative way. Alternative solutions arise:

  • Will a silk scarf or a flower be able to cover the hole and, at the same time, match the outfit and style of the traveler’s look?
  • Will it be possible to purchase a new jacket or outfit for the guest?
  • Do we have a spare outfit that might suit the guest?
  • Do we have enough time to sew the hole if needed?
  • Is it possible for any of our staff members to lend the guest his/her outfit for a few hours?
  • … (the list can go on)

What should the guest service agent do to help the traveler? Many of these unexpected cases have no pre-set algorithms and cannot be solved by a machine. The best solution varies, depending on who is the guest, who happens to be working at the time, and what is available at the moment.

Service jobs of the future require human-machine interactions

No matter how much people want to criticize that automation is pushing workers out of the job market, the reality is that machines or robots are not going away. Workers are expected to work side-by-side with machines to deliver a better quality of work with higher efficiency.

What can people do if they do not want to get replaced by machines?

My suggestion is to be creative and never stop acquiring new knowledge. At a minimum, we need to learn how to turn machines into useful tools to support our work. Additionally, leadership and essential transferable skills (e.g., verbal and written communication skills, critical thinking, and analytical skills) are also important if we strive to be irreplaceable at work. Now, it is also time for institutions in higher education to reposition their roles to better prepare our students for the future.

Are you worried if you will get replaced by machines? If so, to what extent? What suggestions will you make to those who do not want to get replaced by machines?