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Restaurants in Asia have utilized robots for several years to increase efficiencies and optimize workflows. However, the U.S. market has been slower to adapt robotic technology, making it a novelty.

But with rising labor costs and continued workforce shortages, the U.S. restaurant and dining industry is utilizing this technology more than ever.

Likewise, long-term care communities have found it incredibly challenging to recoup the more than 400,000 workers the industry has lost since the pandemic. As a result, some operators have begun testing robots in their dining areas to compensate for the workers they are unable to hire. 

Here are a few things to consider before you get a robot rolling around your dining room.

Identify Workflow Hang Ups

Justin Smith at Direct Supply serves senior living communities across the country. As the Innovation and Technology Manager, Smith helps communities find technology that optimizes their staff so they can best serve residents.

For communities interested in bringing on a robot, Smith recommends that dining room operators observe a few mealtimes to see where staff spend most of their time. He says it’s helpful to know where the hang-ups are because that’s where a robot may be able to help.

“If you haven’t done it in a while, sit through a service and just observe. I think we often get so caught up in getting the food to the resident that we forget everything else that’s happening,” said Smith. “Make sure you know where your staff is spending their time and use that information to guide your decisions about robots and other technology you might need, moving forward.”

Understand What Tasks Robots Could Optimize in Your Dining Room

Smith says one of the biggest misconceptions about robots is that they can do anything — like Rosey from the Jetsons. But in the present day, that isn’t true. Instead, robots are good at doing a single task repetitively. Tasks may include:

  • Running food and beverages
  • Bussing dirty dishes
  • Cleaning and sanitizing floors

“The robots are designed for automation,” he explains. “So you can’t just assign it to do multiple tasks throughout the day. Identify what dining room task you’d like to automate and go from there.”

One thing robots can’t do is replace human touch, but they can provide more opportunities for it to happen. By automating mundane tasks, Smith says the dining staff has more time to engage with residents and have meaningful conversations.

Gather Metrics Early and Often

Bringing a robot into the dining room is an investment. So, you’ll want to back up your investment with proof of the value and the cost savings it brings. This is where Smith says gathering metrics is so important.

“You should know the throughput of a normal dining service and staffing ratios. Those are all important things to measure before you put a robot in the dining room,” he explains.

After putting the robot in place, dining managers should give staff time to adjust. Just like introducing any new technology, there is a learning curve. Smith says to measure again two months later and see how workflow and efficiencies have changed over time. Then, keep measuring every few months.

“If you want to put these robots in multiple buildings, you need to show the return on investment to get buy-in from leadership. The more you can measure and prove the value of the robots, the easier it is to put them in multiple dining locations within your organization,” Smith notes.

Prepare Staff for Changes

You may be unsure about the response from residents once they see robots in the dining room. But, Smith says, residents are usually delighted with the robots.

“Residents love them. They take pictures of them and send them to their grandkids. They really think robots are the coolest thing,” he said.

What operators should focus on is their dining team. When you bring in robots, you change the staff’s workflow. Smith says, because of this, you need to get their buy-in, so they are open to adjusting how they do things.

“Your staff may worry that bringing in a robot will do away with their job. That isn’t true. The robot is there to help them and make their job easier, especially when most teams are short-staffed,” he said. “Let them know these robots can make their job more rewarding because they don’t have to run back and forth so much and can spend more time with residents.”

Give Feedback

Developers are constantly working on AI solutions to address specific needs within the senior living sector. Diving in now and using this technology is the best way to make sure developers can create technology that meets your needs, Smith says.

“Operators need to start testing out this technology. It will continue to mature over time, and we want it to do so in a way that is helpful to you,” he said. “Developers want to hear your feedback and make adjustments so that a few years from now, we have solutions that better the lives of your staff and residents. The best way to do that is to get your feet wet now.”

Leadership may be hesitant to invest in this new technology. But Smith says, in the last few years, senior living operators have proven they adapt well to changes. “The pandemic forced the industry to pivot to new technology quickly. We don’t want to lose that momentum.”