- AI can help streamline administrative tasks and contribute to day-to-day people management, but this can’t happen at the expense of the manager-employee relationship.
- Human leaders are essential to ensuring AI doesn’t negatively affect employee engagement.
As Artificial Intelligence (AI) in the workplace becomes a reality, it’s being hailed as everything from the next new frontier to a “revolution” that is poised to transform the productivity and GDP potential of the global economy.
Daily, we see the launch of new machine learning applications that claim to enhance employee engagement. However, among other major shifts that AI is ushering into the work environment is the potential impact it will have on the manager-employee relationship. What might change once performance evaluations and rewards are based on algorithms? How might AI affect employee engagement if it plays an increasingly larger role in recognition and promotion decisions? And what about the ongoing uncertainty over the future of work and how roles are structured?
We know that the manager-employee relationship is an important factor in employee engagement, just as we know that concerns and ambiguity negatively impact engagement. AI holds huge promise, but we have to prepare our people—managers as well as employees—for what’s to come. In the near term, we need a highly engaged human workforce and a successful partnership between humans and machines.
What does this mean for your AI plans? That’s one of the issues we wanted to explore when we conducted our survey of more than 3,500 employees around the world about their expectations and attitudes toward AI.
To understand the full implications, let’s take a look at how AI is already being used in management.
AI’s Application to Day-to-Day People Management Practices
A recent Accenture survey found that 54% of managers’ time is spent on administrative coordination and control—and those tasks are excellent targets for AI-based automation. There are also AI-powered applications that can assist with things like:
- Coaching and communication analysis tools that give managers insights on employee morale and offer subtle suggestions on how they could boost it.
- Engagement assessment tools that evaluate internal communications to assess things like engagement, rapport with customers, and the effectiveness of team members.
- Career development tools that help with finding internal candidates for open jobs and identifying skills gaps to assist employees with their growth and development.
- Performance management, likely to be used increasingly in companies to add value to the performance appraisal process.
- Reward, recognition and compensation, including rules-driven AI approaches to compensation management, as well as reward and recognition apps driven by AI.
- Productivity tracking, from tracking employees in warehouses to monitoring and tracking computer activity to automating cognitive workflows for improved productivity.
The possibilities seem endless, however, AI isn’t without its consequences. In fact, 64% of our survey respondents at the director level or above said they were at least moderately worried about the potential impact of AI on their organization’s culture. These leaders recognize that if AI’s impact on the company culture leaves employees disengaged, all those gains won’t be realized.
How AI Can Affect Various Areas of Employee Engagement and Motivation
In the past, people were nervous about the introduction of robots into the workplace, however, employees today are actually OK with accepting orders from robots at work. Our research points to some other areas that leaders need to be aware of.
Clarity and Fairness
Our data reveals that people are worried about the fairness and the process behind decisions that are delivered by AI.
Consider the use of AI-driven performance appraisals. When we asked people how likely they would be to trust and accept a performance appraisal conducted by AI instead of a human supervisor—and specified that the criteria involved wouldn’t be fully transparent—only 32% said they’d accept it. On the other hand, 62% were at least somewhat likely to accept it if the criteria were completely transparent. But that’s not how it’s likely going to work. AI engineers often don’t know what exactly is prompting the decisions of their machine learning algorithms. If employees don’t have faith in how their performance is being evaluated, that’s going to impact their engagement and motivation.
The “Big Brother” Effect
Monitoring software has made a big impact on productivity and security in many work environments. But depending on how it’s used and what your company culture is like, it could have a seismic effect—and not in a good way. It could be sending a message that your company doesn’t trust its employees, and that it expects everyone to operate like robots. When employees think the company doesn’t trust them, morale and productivity worsen.
Lack of Employee-Manager Connection
Leadership—the human element that determines so much of an organization’s culture—continues to be the most important influence that determines employee engagement levels. Employees want to be able to have open dialogue with their immediate managers and know that their frustrations and concerns are being heard. AI can help streamline processes and administrative tasks, but this can’t happen at the expense of the manager-employee relationship.
If anything, the role of the manager is more important than ever when it comes to making sure AI is successful in the workplace. Our research shows that, despite any concerns and uncertainty employees may have about AI, when they understand how it’s being used, have trust in their leaders, and have confidence that they can build the skills to adapt, they’ll feel positive about the inevitable changes it brings. All of these require human leadership at its best.
The lesson for managers: The more AI is used in ways that impact your people, and the more sensitive the decisions are, the more important it is that your employees trust you. Also, it is more important that you have the communication skills to build their confidence and support them through the transition.
Download the full study on Preparing People for Success in the Era of AI for specific steps managers and leaders need to take to maintain employee engagement as AI becomes part of the work environment.