Can You Be My Teammate? Human-Robot Teams in Organizations

Franziska Doris Wolf and Ruth Maria Stock-Homburg discuss the inspiration and implications of their article, “How and When Can Robots Be Team Members? Three Decades of Research on Human–Robot Teams,” which was published in Group & Organization Management.

Imagine coming to work one day and seeing a human-like robot who turns to you and says, “Hey, nice to meet you. I am Pepper, your new teammate.” You’d probably be taken aback and wondering what this is all about. Robots are usually found on the shop floor, right? Can a robot even be a teammate at work? Is this what the future of work looks like?

With current advances in artificial intelligence and robotics, the potential of these technologies has expanded tremendously. However, many questions remain unanswered for both researchers and practitioners. In particular, for the integration of (social) robots in our work environments – which are an important part of our daily lives – further insights are needed. The topic of robots and humans working together in teams, so-called mixed human-robot teams, is of particular interest, as teams are the norm in the workplace for many of us.

To shed light into this emerging topic, we systematically reviewed 150 studies published between 1990 and 2020 that examined mixed human–robot teams conceptually or empirically. We were guided by a number of questions:

  • In what areas (outside manufacturing) can robots work with humans in teams already today?
  • What roles can robots play in human-robot teams?
  • What are avenues for future research on human-robot teams?

Surprisingly, despite the increasing importance and expectation of human-robot teams in office environments, there has been very little research in this area. Most studies and real-life applications today instead focus on military, urban search and rescue, or general human-robot interaction settings. In these scenarios, robots are often found in subordinate roles, being operated and controlled by humans rather than acting autonomously.

Headshots of professors Franziska Doris Wolf (left) and Ruth Maria Stock-Homburg.
Franziska Doris Wolf, left, and Ruth Maria Stock-Homburg

At the same time, while there is a growing body of research on human-robot teams across disciplines, there are also challenges. With the manifold backgrounds and foci of research, there is no universal definition of human-robot teams that reflects and is accepted by a broad range of disciplines conducting research on related topics. Taking into account different perspectives and ongoing discussions, we shape a typology for mixed human-robot teams that can serve as a starting point for other researchers in this field.

Finally, our findings indicate that while a growing number of important aspects of human-robot teams are already being investigated, more research is needed, especially on a number of important topics: Research and practice need to be brought together to prepare individuals, companies, and society for human-robot teams and the various roles that robots can play in such teams. Particular attention should be paid to robotic leadership, which – along with more general robotic team membership in form of robotic colleagues – will play an important role in the future of work. We hope that this article inspires researchers and practitioners to actively engage with the future vision of robots as our partners in the work teams of the future to make this vision a reality.

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Franziska Wolf and Ruth Stock-Homburg

Franziska Wolf (pictured) is a research assistant at the Faculty of Law and Economics, Department of Marketing and Human Resources Management, Technical University of Darmstadt. Dr. Ruth Stock-Homburg is chair of the department of Marketing and Human Resources Management at the Technical University of Darmstadt.

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