Finding the Balance Between Automation and Human Touch



Automation has its place in business and multifamily today. Busy workplaces and lifestyles require a little digital help when real, live, breathing humans can’t get to the phone or digital device.

But not everything should be reduced to a digital series of commands or questions before narrowing down to an answer, place or resolution. At least according to the latest Pew Center for Research study, “Automation in Everyday Life.”

Americans are more hesitant than enthusiastic about automation

The study asked respondents their thoughts on driverless vehicles, a future where robots and computers replaced most tasks of human workers, the possibility of robot caregivers for older adults and a computer that can hire job candidates with no human involvement.

It seems those scenarios struck a nerve with most. Americans generally are more edgy than enthusiastic about the future of automation, in some cases almost three to one.

However, perhaps the most compassionate category – caregiving to the elder – is one that Americans would most appreciate automated assistance. Forty-four percent are enthusiastic about the possibilities. Perhaps medication administration makes sense, but I’m just not sure how R2D2 can change an adult diaper without it getting a little cold to the touch.

The majority (72 percent) are worried that they will be replaced in the workforce by computers or robots. And most are hesitant to use the latest gadgets and are concerned about making important decisions without a human involved on the other end.

For instance, says Pew, roughly 70 percent who would not want to ride in a driverless vehicle fear about their safety. Also, respondents say that no matter how you program a computer or robot, the hiring process just won’t be the same without human contact and decision-making.

Trust and intangibles driving acceptance of computers, robots

It ultimately comes down to trust in technological decision-making and “an appreciation for the unique capabilities and expertise of humans” are at issue for those who are worried that too much technology isn’t a good thing. The latter is what sports commentators call an intangible, that certain something that a team or player has that makes a difference.

In other words, a pitcher may not have a Nolan Ryan-like fastball but has a knack or instinct for getting outs in critical situations late in the game. That could explain why the player isn’t very effective over several innings but is the league’s top closer when entering in the bottom of the ninth with runners on base.

A computer or robot may be programmed to throw a blazing fastball or drop-bottom curve but that doesn’t ensure a positive outcome when the game and money is on the line and 60,000 people are screaming at the top of their lungs.

Unless, of course, we have the real-life uprising like in Westworld (that would be some brush-back pitch).

Translated to multifamily, the intangible is the apartment manager who may not process an application lickity split but just has that way that makes people want to sign a lease. Humans like that sort of thing. It’s a feel-good proposition, a way to relate and a bond.

The perfect solution here would be for the resident to fill out the nefarious paperwork on line and the leasing agent closes the deal with a personal touch. Many multifamily properties employ just that one-two punch through online leasing and follow up.

Navigating with a co-pilot, not a robot

Automation technology should only empower our processes to make lives better, at least that’s what Americans are saying in the Pew survey.

Many want to use technology but have a safety net that prevents them from being swallowed by algorithms. Those surveyed favored a driverless car that would be equipped with a human driver who could immediately take control in an emergency. A co-pilot, and not a robot.

The future test is finding right balance between automation and humans

Most believe that automation technologies will impact their futures. They envision a day when a medical diagnosis is made by a computer, or buying appliances from a kiosk. It’s inevitable that drones will be making parcel deliveries (we’re getting closer than you may think). In each scenario, human involvement will be limited.

The survey, however, can be interpreted as a warning shot to the advances of programming in business. It could suggest that too much automation is a turnoff to someone when deciding to choose a place to live.

Granted, we’re busy and many people want automation to help navigate the day. Deep down, people need people rather than to always feel they are going it alone in the daily minutia.

Finding the balance between automation and humankind is going to be true test for technology in the future.


Contributing Editor, Property Management Insider
President, Ballpark Impressions, LLC

author photo two

Tim Blackwell is a long-time publishing and printing executive in the Dallas/Fort Worth area who writes about the multifamily housing and transportation industries. He has contributed numerous articles to Property Management Insider, and worked as a newspaper reporter in the D/FW area. Blackwell is president of Ballpark Impressions, and publishes the Cowcatcher Magazine. He is a member of the Fort Worth Chapter/Society of Professional Journalists.

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