AI and HR – Friend or Foe?

Artificial intelligence has been on my mind a bit, as its implications on our workforce and society are staggering. Our economy is moving towards automation – first came the programmable tasks, drastically impacting our manual workforce; now AI is replacing other jobs – whether it’s fund managers (for investment portfolios) or answering questions in customer service chat windows. Heck, with the rise of Siri, Alexa and similar products – the technology is going out to consumers in a way never seen before.

Several years ago, I saw a presentation of IBM’s Watson and potential HR applications. I’ll admit, it scared me a bit. With an HR bot able to handle a large chunk of questions, and automation/self-service taking up other aspects, that means a lot fewer HR jobs out there as technology penetrates the market. I felt defensive of my profession, and that a bot was incapable of duplicating the experience of a live human.

Recently, I read “The Future Of Work: The Intersection Of Artificial Intelligence And Human Resources” in Forbes. It helped reframed the debate to me from either/or to a partnership or an if/then situation. I’ll be honest, I hate the majority of paperwork associated with my job. It’s brainless work that’s less impactful to the business and its people. It doesn’t energize or engage me, but it needs to get done to provide a great experience for employees. Similarly, there are a ton of simple questions that get asked fairly often.

If we had an HR bot embedded in HipChat at Buildium, what would have been the impact?

  • I could have programmed reminders for deadlines, nominations and surveys to go out at specific times of the month or year. This would remove the possibility of me or my team sending it too late because of bandwidth issues.
  • We could have programmed the bot to answer questions about benefit eligibility and enrollment, rollover, time off, holidays, raises, perks and payroll. People would get these real time versus waiting for an email response or for someone in HR to be available to answer.
  • My Ops folks could have programmed answers about security codes, requesting travel, expense reports, ordering equipment, company events, etc.
  • Onboarding reminders, check-ins and surveys could have been automated. After a week, we could remind you to review the interview process on Glassdoor. After three months, we could ask you to review the company.

There is a defensive way of thinking about that … it costs a job on my team. We budgeted plenty of time each quarter for responsive tasks. Many of these would be replaced by a bot. However, because there was so much time allotted to customer service (our employees), many larger projects or initiatives never got launched because there wasn’t enough time. Others ran late because reminders or the process was manual.

If we had a bot able to handle even 50% of these tasks and questions, we could have kept our performance management process regular and innovative. We could have spent more time on figuring out career development and finding a learning platform that supported employee and business needs. We could have scaled some of the personal touches we had to eliminate because we just didn’t have enough time. We could have not missed opportunities for feedback. Training and onboarding could have been markedly improved!

Progressive companies will still want that work done, so the HR profession will endure and free up more time for professionals to focus on the big things. In this case, it likely would have drastically increased the productivity of my team in meaningful work. Their engagement and job satisfaction would have been higher. I see two downsides. One: Those drop-in interactions when people have a question are a great way to check in with how people are doing. HR needs to foster great relationships throughout the organization to be effective. Two: Companies that don’t see HR or People Ops as strategic will use it to cut costs.

I think I land in a place where I think bots could help increase the efficacy of the function, and increase the time spent on meaningful and potentially innovative work. HR will need to be more deliberate about finding other ways to have informal interactions with their employees. Personally, if it helps free up my time to think about and experiment with better approaches to improving the workplace, I’m all for it.