A recent report jointly published by Oxford University’s Martin School and Citi has predicted that a number of jobs are under threat due to the likelihood of job automation and its impact on current employees. One of the most striking predictions they make is that four in five retail jobs are likely to be replaced by robots in the coming years. However, it is not only the retail sector that is likely to be affected. Other areas such as transport, manufacturing, and crucially, hospitality, will be hit.

The idea of employees in the hospitality industry being taken over by robots may sound like something from a science fiction film, but it is in fact already a reality. In Japan, the Henn na Hotel is staffed by robots. The services provided range from greeting guests at the front desk and checking them in, to carrying luggage to their room by way of a porter robot. The hotel has also introduced facial recognition systems for accessing rooms so that guests no longer need to worry about losing their key cards.

Although the use of robots to staff a hotel may sound like a gimmick (and largely is at present), the automation of a large number of jobs in the future is undeniable. In fact, the Institute for Public Policy Research has reported that it believes up to 15 million jobs in the UK are likely to be at risk of automation within the next two decades. Employers therefore need to be prepared for this shift.
The automation of some roles does present opportunities for the current workforce. The large numbers of jobs most at risk are more manual or routine based roles. Therefore, this could be seen as an opportunity to upskill current staff and expand their capabilities beyond their current role. The very nature of the hospitality industry demands human interaction, and no doubt there will be more sophisticated roles available for such employees.

However, despite the opportunities available, the move towards job automation will undoubtedly have a huge effect on how the industry is run. Both employees and employers will need to be ready for this change and be aware of the consequences. Some key issues to consider may include whether employees’ contract terms need to be amended, the possibility of mass redundancies and the necessity of interaction with unions.
It may be necessary to review current employees’ contracts to determine whether any changes in the future may be needed. This could be in relation to the description of the job role and duties involved or notice periods.

It is possible that the automation of roles may result in employers needing to make redundancies. It is important that employers are aware of their obligations in this regard. For example, where 20 or more employees are being made redundant at one establishment within a period of 90 days or less, an employer has a duty to undertake collective consultation with staff representatives.

The exact nature or extent of job automation in the hospitality sector is not yet apparent. However, it is clear that there is going to be a big shift in how jobs are performed across a number of industries in the next couple of decades. Although it does not seem likely that there will be any immediate changes, it is always helpful to look ahead and be prepared for key developments.

Laura Farnsworth is a partner in the employment team at Lewis Silkin LLP