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January 22, 2018

The definition of ‘work’ is changing rapidly, especially with the coming of age of artificial intelligence and machine learning and other revolutionary technologies that threaten to automate vast tracts of jobs as they exist today. While it might take some more time before [Warren] Bennis’s prediction becomes a reality, technology that is increasingly getting closer to how humans behave and interact is a reality and is being used in enterprises to increase efficiency—right now!

So what does the evolution of bots and other technologies mean for employee engagement?

Employee engagement is now a topic that business leaders recognize as a key ingredient of organizational performance. Gallup’s State of the American Workplace report highlights their research which compared companies from the highest and lowest quartiles of engagement levels. It found that companies who were in the top quartile reported higher productivity, higher sales, and higher profitability among several other metrics, as a consequence of higher employee engagement levels.

There is no doubt that employee engagement has a direct bearing on productivity and therefore on business goals, which is why it is on every business agenda today.

much ado about engagement

Researchers and academicians have been publishing studies over the decades, but employee engagement still continues to be a largely subjective measure and there often still seems to be substantial debate on what really drives it.

The proliferation of active employee engagement in the lexicon of business leaders may be relatively new, but in reality it represents an age-old standoff between the transactional Taylorist management and the new-age leadership that places emphasis on defining purpose and values, and supporting employees to achieve their personal and organizational goals.

Many of the studies on employee motivation and behavior still refer to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs from the 1950s as the model through which to understand engagement.

Along the way, it has become clear that engagement is not, as literature often is misunderstood as implying, something that managers can ‘do’ to their employees, rather it is a consequence of what they ‘do’. The eventual mental, emotional, and physical state of the employees is a consequence of management style and organizational culture and the discretionary effort that employees give. So instant recognition, clear definition of work roles, and responsiveness from colleagues and managers all add up to driving higher levels of engagement. None of these principles are really new, they have been known and understood for a long time. What we have not been able to do very well is figure out how to incorporate those learnings seamlessly into the daily work routines at office.

Which brings us to the present day with the rise of advanced enterprise computing. Marketers have always been at the forefront of experimenting with and adopting new technologies. Chatbots and intelligent assistants have been used by marketing teams of large organizations to improve buying experience for customers for years now. HR is now playing catchup and catching on fast in a quest to apply the same principles to employee experience.

Consider this—in a research study by, more than 22% of millennials indicated they expect some kind of response within ten minutes of reaching out to a consumer brand. Those millennials are now a dominant cohort in the workplace and expect the same responsiveness at the workplace to their queries and support requests.

The IBM Institute for Business Value conducted a survey of nearly 400 CHROs recently. Interestingly, the study found that half of the survey samples recognize the power of cognitive computing to transform key dimensions of HR.

the chatbot advantage

“The advance of technology is based on making it fit in so that you don’t really even notice it, so it’s part of everyday life.” – Bill Gates

Chatbots have evolved from being mere query tools and side mentions to being part of the larger core technology strategy. They enable enterprises to cut expenses, automate business processes, increase productivity, and transform employee engagement.

Why would chatbots be so well positioned to transform employee experience at the workplace? In the last decade there has been a boom of cloud platforms and companies have adopted them eagerly. This has given rise to a new problem of data fragmentation of a different degree. While the API interfaces do alleviate the interconnectedness problem to some extent, it is still a lot of effort for the individual to track down and locate the right data. Bots are uniquely suited for the purpose of acting as a single intermediary who can access all data sources and provide the relevant response back to the user—‘while being embedded in a natural conversation’. Employees now do not have to wait for someone to get back with response to a query, know how to login to a dozen different databases (each with its own user interface), have ‘tacit’ knowledge  of where ‘information’ is, or waste hundreds of hours doing things like book expenses, apply for leave, or setup meetings.

Bots are increasingly becoming the new user interface of enterprise software. But why is this happening?

Firstly, they are ridiculously easy to implement. ‘Installation’ on most platforms just involves ‘inviting a bot’ into a chat stream or group—just as you would invite a colleague. Further interactions with bots no longer require advanced knowledge of formulating SQL queries. Thanks to advances in natural language processing (NLP) and machine learning, conversations with chatbots increasingly mimic natural language.

Secondly, chatbots are able to provide a level of abstraction to isolate employees from the need to deep dive into complex workflows and remember multiple variables. It is like having a friendly mentor who is always helping you out. With chatbots doing the heavy lifting of data validation and process adherence, there can be a marked improvement in the productivity of employees and therefore in customer satisfaction.

Last and arguably the most important, thanks to efforts from technology giants like IBM and a whole universe of startups like Kwench, chatbots are increasingly becoming accessible to the point that the average system administrator can use publicly available bots or implement custom integration bots across a huge array
of platforms.

Now that we know why bots are well positioned to improve employee engagement, let us take a quick look at areas where chatbots help improve the employee experience:

querying and transforming data: As I mentioned before, companies now generate more data than ever before across diverse platforms. With increased computational capability and cheaper storage, we generate and track all kinds of data points. Spread across different systems and formats, all that valuable data often can get lost along the way. And even if all the data is in one place, analyzing huge amounts of it can be extremely challenging.

Chatbots can isolate employees from all this overhead and complexity. Users can issue simple commands to bots who in turn can acquire and analyze data as required, freeing up precious bandwidth to glean better insights.

automating and streamlining business processes: Repetitive and mundane tasks are one of the biggest sources of disengagement among employees. Often
tasks that require collecting data from different team members or sources and collating resist the usual algorithmic automation.

With bots, it is now possible to streamline those tasks across departments. This can then free up employees to focus on more productive and revenue-generating tasks. Additionally, there is an increased sense of satisfaction from doing meaningful work and this in turn drives engagement levels.

acting as personal assistants: We typically imagine that only the top management in an organization needs personal assistants. Take a minute to look at your own workday. Seemingly simple tasks like leave application and meeting setups can eat into productive time.

A leave application requires someone to query pending leaves, for the reporting manager to approve, and then notify the employee about his approval. The employee in turn then has to inform colleagues and set out-of-office notification in her email for the time she is away from office. A bot can do all of this in one go.

Same story for the other example. Meeting setups can be a nightmare, trying to synchronize the availability of all those who need to attend. Check individual calendars (assuming they are shared with you) or have back and forth on emails, block the calendar, book a conference bridge or room as required and maybe send reminders before the meeting is to start. Nightmare? No longer— with bots to do all that for you.

empowering the HR department to engage better: At one end of the spectrum, bots are ideal tools for HR to free themselves from routine questions on policy, training, leave, and approvals. Especially in large organizations, these can become quite a task. The sheer volume of queries can require dedicated teams to be set up and even then the employee might be put off by what they see as unresponsiveness or incomplete information being provided. Bots can do all of the heavy lifting and automate a bulk of the process, escalating to a human only when in cases where data is found wanting.

At the other end is the power chatbots have to help HR transform the employee experience in the entire lifecycle starting from onboarding to ongoing engagement all the way to exit from the organization. Embedding bots enables managers to deliver instant recognition (and rewards) as a part of the conversation with teams on the messaging platform.

the future is now

The right technology can help a progressive organization create an inspired workplace. But this takes clear vision by the top leadership, relentless recognition of good work and effective communication to establish a culture of engagement. Chatbots with their distinctive advantages are poised to change the game forever. The euphoria is justified, but we must also pay heed to what Bill Gates said, “The first rule of any technology used in a business is that automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency. The second is that automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency.”