Why we need to focus AI on relationships

IBM is a client of the author.

We aren’t all good at building relationships. This is becoming a very pronounced problem with remote workers, particularly those who have never worked on-premises at a company — and especially those who have just graduated from college.

AIs are capable of a lot of things, particularly at helping create and maintain customer relationships, as reported by IBM. IBM has previously disclosed that its Watson solution has significantly increased close rates when used in sales, and increased customer loyalty and satisfaction when used for CRM. That demonstrates a relationship-building capability that could also be applied to employee care.

Let’s explore using AI to improve relationships this week.

The problem

We don’t train kids how to create and maintain good relationships, either personal or business. This is particularly problematic when it comes to hiring fresh-out-of-college people who haven’t ever worked in a large company before. Things that were acceptable at school, like asking out another student, are often not acceptable in the workplace.

Managers are struggling with how to manage remote workers, particularly those fresh out of school, with reports that the Gen Z, a.k.a. zoomer (those born starting in the late 1990s), workforce is broken. A recent Bankrate survey of 2,417 US adults found that during the last 12 months, zoomers were more likely to quit and get a new job than any other demographic. Fifty-five percent reported that they were planning to look for a new job in the coming year vs. 43% of millennials, 28% of Gen X, and 13% of boomers (who are likely just happy to still have jobs).

When employees feel isolated at work and lack the post-school skills to create personal relationships, it is no wonder those employees feel isolated, lonely, and unmotivated. 

The AI solution

We are already seeing reports of AI-enhanced companion robots being used to address loneliness for isolated individuals lacking other options. Researchers at Auckland, Duke, and Cornell Universities have even proposed a “Companion Robot Impact Scale” to quantify the benefits of companion robots on health and loneliness. This effort also emphasizes that about one third of the population has loneliness issues that AI can address.

However, real human friends continue to be superior, and given that AI has proven successful for creating better dating matches, it would also be useful for creating lasting workplace friendships and mentor relationships.

In addition, AI is often seen as safer when people ask questions they are afraid will make them look foolish, stupid, or poorly behaved. While another person may have judgments about the nature and wording of a question, an AI is simply going to focus on providing the best answer. And if properly trained, it can provide impersonal feedback on the way the person interacts with it, with a better chance of helping the employee improve their interpersonal skills than if they feel judged.

Onboarding AI

Granted, you also need to onboard the AI to make sure employees trust the tool and will use it. This can be problematic, given that many employees fear that AI will replace them. A Harvard Business Review article provided guidance on how to do this properly, suggesting that the AI be set up to succeed following known successful procedures first and then advancing the interaction as the employee becomes comfortable with the tool.

In other words, you start by making the AI into an assistant that enhances and helps the employee, then allow it to become a monitor/mentor as it provides real-time feedback on how the employee is interacting with others in the company. The next phase is the coach, where the AI becomes proactive and able to provide more detailed feedback at times of the employee’s choosing, with the final phase being that the AI becomes a teammate, able to autonomously do things on behalf of the human/AI team.

During this evolution of the personal AI, the employee trains the AI and the AI trains the employee, so they become two parts of a more productive team. This should not only make work more enjoyable for the employee, but create a significant retention benefit, because if the employee leaves, all that training work and custom benefit will likely be lost.

Wrapping up

We are increasingly using AI to create and maintain relationships with customers, but the real short-term need is in creating and maintaining relationships with our employees, particularly those who are remote. AI can do this, too, and create a stronger relationship between the employee and the company, as well as provide advice on behavior. It could perform the role of matchmaker so that the employee no longer feels isolated and disconnected from co-workers. 

If we believe that employees are our greatest resource, putting our best technology toward assuring employee success should be our highest priority. 

Copyright © 2023 IDG Communications, Inc.


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