Tech won’t replace humans in building operations in our lifetime

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Fear of automation is nothing new. When William Lee threatened to revolutionise Britain’s textile industry with an automated knitting machine in 1589, Queen Elizabeth refused the patent, arguing: “thou aimest high, Master Lee. Consider thou what the invention could do to my poor subjects. It would assuredly bring to them ruin by depriving them of employment, thus making them beggars.”

These issues are far from foreign to us. The threat of automation to blue collar jobs is still as real as it was four-and-a-half centuries ago, and careless job disruption has left many thousands of workers with chronically unstable futures. Critics warn of the so-called ‘Uber economy’, with technology pushing for efficiency by destroying jobs as new tools become available. While Uber drivers may make more money than traditional taxi drivers, workers find themselves constantly wrestling with the possibility that technology may very suddenly replace a part of their job.

It is easy to sympathise with the Luddite position: the cost to the individual is not always worth the gamble for abstract eventual success. We can also understand that technology is the only sure-fire way to improve productivity and living standards for individual’s long term. But there is a third way…

The Third Way

Building operations are strongest when they harness the power of both technology and the people that operate it. The goal is not to replace our engineers with robots that can do their job in half the time. The goal is to find a way to use technology to support and facilitate the quality work that only a human mind can learn and achieve. The companies that survive this volatile era of digitisation will not be those that use technology at the expense of their workers, but those who can use it to empower them.

WeMaintain’s solution uses Internet of Things-style sensors to talk to each other about how buildings are being used, which gives engineers the information they need to do the best possible job. Sensors attach to a lift or an escalator and then measure how they are used to anticipate risk and inform engineers in good time. The collected signal data is then analysed and made available to the engineer on an app, who can use all the relevant information to direct his work.

Ultimately, this translates into faster response times, faster repair times, fewer emergency breakdowns and fewer interferences with building users. Better information means engineers can arrive with exactly the tools they need and schedule repairs at times that will have the minimal impact on traffic, while avoiding the expense of costly emergency repairs. At every stage, technology is used to support the engineer– not to replace them.

Scaling Up

This is one thing in a residential building. With larger commercial buildings, companies will start to look for ways to save costs. Leaders start to replace workers with technology when they no longer see the value of human judgement to the task; this is more likely to happen when fixing the problems of large vertical buildings in which human interaction and relationship building seems far less of a priority.

But companies get it wrong when they miss the value their engineers add. There is only so much information you can collect by repeatedly recording how and when devices are used– and this problem also scales. Especially as our use of office spaces becomes more complex and erratic, guided by new trends in hybrid work and mixed office use, people are needed to infer from instinct, to build bridges with building users to fill in for information gaps, and to feed back on the technology’s blind-spots as it evolves to collect information on new challenges.

Blue collar workers frequently have their value undermined as leaders look for new ways to optimise their businesses. The assumption is that human beings are inherently prone to error and that automation will make processes consistent and efficient. But no single-function machine can hope to replicate the complex knowledge and experience of a seasoned worker; the technical skill of top engineers is on par with that of doctors and lawyers whose theoretical and practical careers have granted nuanced judgement and dexterity that no modern machine can hope to match.

A doctor may be slower than his computer to read and analyse a database of information to work out the pattern killing his patient. The advantage the doctor has is that his patients talk to him as a person; the doctor learns to infer from what isn’t said, learns to look in the areas the equipment misses and raises the questions the forms forgot to ask. Our staff are our greatest asset and we grow by using technology to help them, not to replace them.

The future of engineering

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Large commercial spaces are leading the way on automation. But the industry has started to twig that this cannot be at the expense of its engineers. The pressure on engineers to perform in an antagonistic working environment has seen a spike in mental health-related concerns; on the eve of the pandemic, 50.4% of manufacturing and construction companies reported an increase in the number of employee mental health issues between 2016 and 2019.

Some work has been done to put this right. 65% of manufacturing and engineering firms are now taking active steps to raise awareness of mental health, above the 55% average over other sectors. We learn from a young age that we cannot expect our devices to last forever unless we look after them properly; we are now learning to afford the same kindness to our employees, our colleagues and ourselves.

The pandemic has surely renewed appreciation for the ‘invisible jobs’ that keep everything running, such as cleaners and supermarket shelf stackers. But there is still a way to go. The overnight switch to remote work gave researchers an insight into the worlds of white-collar workers and their health concerns, but there has been inevitably less reporting on the people whose jobs were less drastically affected by Covid. The plight of NHS nurses striking last December now reminds us of the ongoing battle to look after those who keep us safe and able when things break down.

As a result, the future of engineering will start not with a conversation but with many. Technology can facilitate a healthier, more transparent culture for our staff on the ground when used to support daily operations and give space for feedback. We should see that the technology that defines our businesses is not only the sophisticated software we take to market, but also the channels and applications we choose to help foster productive conversations between our staff.

Over the years, our hardest and most important challenge has been to create a platform where engineers feel comfortable reaching out to senior staff and talking candidly about the tools and knowledge they need to be most effective. In an industry where talented engineers are used to working in strict hierarchical structures, the primary function of leadership is to give them the autonomy to thrive with a genuine commitment to addressing concerns and anxieties as they emerge.

The role of technology

The open potential of technology to revolutionise work is exciting but we must remember its purpose to support. When Britain finally did adopt William Lee’s technology, its textile industry paved the way for the Industrial Revolution. It did this not by destroying jobs but by creating new ones, pulling thousands from low-productivity agricultural work to bustling towns and cities. The average person earned more money, lived longer and had a better quality of life as a result.

We should also remember that it was the conversations initiated between unions and industry that made early factories much safer and less costly for operators and employers in the long run. Shorter work days and better working conditions created a more productive, healthy workforce that benefitted the whole as much as the individual.

Once again, leaders are challenged to decide how they will use the new power that technology affords. History tells us that the future of engineering has engineers at its core, and we must remember this as we begin the process of progress again.

Tom Harmsworth is Managing Director UK, WeMaintain

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