The service sector is at an inflection point, with potential industrialisation arising from robotics creating new opportunities for innovation and the potential for a service revolution (Wirtz et al., 2018). A service revolution through technology may address issues including labour shortages (Beesley, 2021). In Ireland, for example, although tourism generates €9.2 billion annually and employs 265,000 people, there is a skills crisis with approximately 40,000 vacant positions (McGowan, 2021). Inflation in wages means businesses struggle to operate below 40% labour cost (McGowan, 2021), and 90% of businesses highlight difficulties in recruiting staff (Finn, 2021). In addition, workers in the gig economy face erratic working hours and uncertainty about pay (Martyn, 2021), with human costs of the gig economy including isolation without supportive colleagues or mentors, affecting perceptions of human dignity at work (Lillington, 2019).
Cognisant of these challenges, we recently conducted research based on a sample of 805 employees in the Irish hospitality sector (Wallace and Coughlan, 2022). Drawing on Conservation of Resources theory (COR), we proposed affective commitment and perceived leader support (specifically LMX) as resources against burnout. We found that the emotional exhaustion component of burnout was associated with counterproductive workplace behaviour, and affective commitment and LMX are effective resources against burnout, and against CWB. We also found that those who perceived they were on zero-hour contracts (or in the ‘gig economy’) were less able to draw on affective commitment or LMX as resources when experiencing burnout, but they were also less likely to ‘act out’ when they experienced burnout. We cautioned that zero-hour workers in the hospitality sector may internalise their stress and cope with the challenges of work in other ways.
One solution to these challenges would be a greater reliance on service robots; to support staffing, reduce uncertainty and work, and allow hospitality to deliver a consistent, efficient offering. Yet extant literature has focused less on the implications of frontline employees working with robotics (De Keyser et al., 2020). For example, if a service encounter is positive experience for the customer, the service robot may receive praise while the human employee remains unacknowledged, negatively impacting employee commitment (Robinson et al., 2020). Yet when technology such as service robots are involved in repetitive work, this may free up time to allow frontline employees to engage in more exciting and varied work (Wirtz et al., 2018). Also, if employees are no longer dealing with trivial requests, this may allow them to deal with higher-level tasks (Robinson et al., 2020).
Building on our earlier research, the first objective of our current study is to examine how service robots could be integrated in services by considering managers’ and employees’ views about these technologies. One could suggest that adding service robots would help to alleviate workload issues leading to burnout, support zero-hour workers in providing more assurance regarding hours worked, and support employees to allow them to engage with customers in a more genuine way. Yet while robots are predicted to have a profound impact on the sector (Lu et al., 2020), they have some weaknesses relative to service employees (Huang and Rust, 2018; Wirtz et al., 2018). For example, although robots offer an advantage of homogeneity in the delivery of repetitive services, customisation may be required to meet specific customer needs, and a heterogeneous delivery may be more appropriate (Palmer, 2011). Additionally, robots’ feigned emotion may be easily distinguished as not genuine, especially over longer- or high-involvement service encounters (Wirtz et al., 2018). Furthermore, customers may be relationship-motivated and expect social relationships with frontline employees, and this form of rapport, rich communication and emotional expression may engender customer trust and satisfaction, which could be lost in inhuman interactions (Robinson et al., 2020).
Rust (2020 p.18) highlighted that we are in a transformation, where artificial intelligence may compete with human intelligence, and this could dramatically change the skillset that humans need to remain relevant in the workplace. Huang et al. (2019) assert that human intelligence must emphasise empathy – a ‘feeling economy’ – where the empathetic dimensions of work are emphasised as mechanical and analytical tasks are replaced by AI and Robotics, especially in the services sector where interpersonal relationships are critical.
A consideration of the ‘feeling economy’ is particularly relevant in researching the implementation of service robots in Ireland’s hospitality sector. In Ireland, frontline service employees are a ‘secret ingredient’ in the sector. The Irish hospitality and tourism industry has built campaigns around ‘Ireland of the welcomes’ (McGrath, 2018). McGrath (2018) cites Niall Tracey of Failte Ireland, who explains “…what visitors constantly come back to is the people they engaged with,” he says. “When we ask visitors what it is about the people, it’s the smile. Irish people will smile at you, and without a word, that smile uniquely says, ‘I’m only here to help, how are you getting on?’”. He adds: “it’s very relaxed. It’s not manufactured friendliness, it’s a really authentic connection…it really makes Ireland quite magical compared to other destinations.” Yet when robots takes over a task, these human skills are displaced (Rust, 2020). How can, and should, the service be best delivered without losing that ‘magic’ that is unique and special within the sector?
The second objective of this study therefore is to explore how to best engage robots to alleviate challenges in the hospitality sector, while retaining the ‘magic’ of its service delivery and build an advantage in the ‘feeling economy’. Drawing on the Irish context provides unique insights into employee response to service robots, where frontline employees are the point of difference. Utilising survey, experimental design and in-depth discussions with managers and employees in hotels in particular, findings elicit their attitudes about service robots. We investigate the relationship between burnout, employee’s’ resources, and their response to service robots working alongside them. We also investigate managers’ views about integrating service robots in a sector famous for its friendly, human face.