Walmart: ‘Technology isn’t taking over. It’s empowering our people’

March 15, 2023, 10:42 AM UTC
Walmart says that using machines for tasks such as moving heavy pallets allows employees to focus on the customer experience.
Suzanne Kreiter - The Boston Globe - Getty Images

In the ongoing debate about people versus machines in business, it feels like we’ve reached a major turning point. Advances based on automation and artificial intelligence (AI) have prompted many questions rooted in fear and curiosity.

However, I know for a fact that a human connection element will always be in demand for our business. Our people have and always will make the difference–just like innovation has and always will play a major role in any successful business. This isn’t an either/or question. Technology and people can work together in pursuit of our purpose to help people save money and live better.

As a company that’s been around for 60 years, we are in a unique position: We are mature but just getting started–and we’re comfortable with that dichotomy. Today, Walmart is thriving thanks to this approach. We recently released historically strong year-end results–and we’re excited about where we’re headed with our omnichannel strategy.

The pandemic has accelerated our strategy and pushed us to meet customers where they are. It also underscored that, fundamentally, people are core to every business. At the time, sophisticated technology propelled our business forward with new services, making everyday life easier for our customers. Now, busy families can use our app to pick up groceries on the way home from gymnastics, or can have their weekly staples delivered straight to the refrigerator. But it’s our associates who make the experience special–choosing the best-looking apples for your order or placing your eggs just where you like them in the refrigerator.

When we launched the InHome pilot in a few cities across the U.S. in 2019, one of our first customers in Kansas City developed a special connection with the associate who regularly delivers his groceries. In getting to know the customer, our associate found out they have mobility issues that make carrying and holding heavy items, like a gallon of milk, difficult. So, when a half gallon of milk is out of stock–and the standard replacement would be a full gallon–our associate made it a point to pick smaller sizes for the customer. Or consider customers who are blind and appreciate that our associates will read out expiration dates on the products when they’re delivered.

These human, intimate, and nuanced connections are irreplaceable. There’s a profound trust in these relationships–one that we don’t take for granted.

The roles and responsibilities of our jobs will no doubt evolve as technology creates more efficiencies. Our business will continue to grow as a result, and our workforce will grow and change alongside it.

While automation has not had a significant impact on our headcount, it has helped us reimagine how we utilize our workforce. In creating efficiencies, our intent isn’t to replace our workers, but to shift their focus to the things humans do best: connecting with each other and understanding the subtleties of people’s needs, wants, and hopes. Ultimately, technology is enabling us to create more rewarding and engaging jobs that complement our people’s strengths while serving customers in ways that are faster, easier, and unique to how they live.

Take for example that we have started using high-speed palletizing robotics in our distribution centers, which removes one of the toughest parts of the job for our associates: material handling. A job that used to require them to lift tens of thousands of pounds now requires minimal lifting and enables associates to grow their technical competencies through interaction with a digital display. The system also optimizes freight and creates pallets that are ready to go straight from a truck to a store shelf, freeing up associates to work with customers more than materials.

As we think about the future of hiring, we see opportunities for people who enjoy people–those who are intellectually curious, empathetic, innovative, and interested in the relationship between people and business outcomes. And, as technology advances, we will also see new jobs like when we expanded our pickup and delivery services before and during the pandemic. Between 2018 and 2020, we added over 130,000 technology-empowered positions in our U.S. stores.

An organization only exists if you have great people. I have the good fortune of working among 2.1 million associates worldwide, making an incredible difference for people every day in ways that are deeply and beautifully human.

Technology is a wonderful thing–and so are the people who smile at you and ask how your day is going when you walk into our stores. There’s a subtle joy in these experiences that can’t be replicated.

Community and relationships are at the very core of who we are as people. Life can be difficult and messy, and that’s only understood by people who have been through shared experiences. Our brains are hard-wired for human connection, and that informs how we must think about jobs and efficiencies.

The future of business is one that prioritizes meaningful human interactions while using technology to automate everyday tasks, the two working in harmony.

Donna Morris is Walmart’s Chief People Officer.

The opinions expressed in commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.

More must-read commentary published by Fortune:

Fortune‘s CFO Daily newsletter is the must-read analysis every finance professional needs to get ahead. Sign up today.

Read More

Great ResignationClimate ChangeLeadershipInflationUkraine Invasion