These AI Tools Want To Make Sure You Have Friends At Work

Limeade and ZeroIN HR are using algorithms to sort through employee sentiment and offer managers action plans to help bring workers closer together.

These AI Tools Want To Make Sure You Have Friends At Work
[Photo: santypan/iStock]

Loneliness can take a big toll on your health. Former surgeon general Vivek Murthy says that loneliness and weak social connections can put you at risk for heart disease, dementia, depression, and anxiety. It can also cut your life expectancy by the equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day and more than obesity.


This epidemic, says Murthy, has roots in a culture that often has people moving far from friends and families for jobs, or working remotely. But even those who work in traditional offices are often isolated behind computer screens. The irony is that we spend much of our waking hours with coworkers, yet we often don’t really relate to them at all.

At work, Murthy notes, loneliness is responsible for reducing task performance, limiting creativity, and impairing reasoning and decision making. Research from California State University and the Wharton School of Business bears this out. “An employee’s work loneliness triggers emotional withdrawal from their organization. The results also show that coworkers can recognize this loneliness and see it hindering team member effectiveness.”

Related: Why Having Friends At Work Is So Important

“For our health and our work, it is imperative that we address the loneliness epidemic quickly,” Murthy argues. Now there are software tools that use AI to do what we, as human workers, can’t seem to manage on our own. Limeade’s Inclusion+ and ZeroIN HR Solutions Happy and Inclusion (HI Index) operate on the principle that an inclusive organization can counteract the ill effects of social isolation workers would face whether they are telecommuting or sitting in a cubicle farm.

Happiness And Inclusion By Algorithm

The Inclusion+ uses an algorithm to measure workplace inclusion through an algorithm that scores results of anonymized employee feedback surveys. The statements employees are asked to rate range from, “I feel comfortable voicing my opinions with my coworkers,” to “I have access to a mentor or sponsor who helps me navigate my organization,” and “I feel like a variety of backgrounds are represented inside my organization.”


Limeade CEO Henry Albrecht says that an overall inclusion score gives managers and executives a high-level summary of how included employees feel. The algorithm also generates automated action plans for individuals, managers, and leaders.

Albrecht notes that while these plans are based on users’ survey responses, they are also tailored to the culture and business goals of each company. For example, a recommendation may support redesigning office space to offer more common areas, or to encourage the formation of employee resource groups. “This is a huge value for large companies with many offices because they’re able to scale their workplace inclusion efforts,” he points out.

ZeroIn’s Happy and Inclusion (HI Index) also takes the temperature of the workforce through anonymous sentiment surveys, according to founder William T. Lewis, PhD. This tool is more of a pulse measurement that comes with a subscription-based application with a tiered structure based on the number of employees in the organization.

Related: Why Your Boss Should Care About How Many Friends You Have At Work

The advantage of these cloud-based AI solutions is a cost-saving measure, says Lewis, especially for small or mid-size businesses that may not have the resources to hire someone onsite to conduct the analysis. Albrecht notes that Inclusion+ is an add-on to Limeade’s engagement platform that costs about the same as a Subway lunch for two people, once a year, or “Ten times less than one #MeToo lawsuit or 10 key employees leaving for the wrong reasons.” Companies spend so much money on filling diversity quotas, Albrecht adds, but often fail to build a culture that authentically embraces community and belonging.


Only The First Step

Lewis does say that as an employee engagement tool, it should be just one of several feedback processes in the employee/manager/leadership relationship. But he says employers have to lay the groundwork to get their staff members to respond honestly and without fear of retaliation.

“Employers have to establish an open, transparent, and a continuous improvement work culture that fosters honest feedback,” he contends. Once employees provide their feedback, he says, it’s important that leadership act, otherwise employees won’t take management or the survey seriously.

Albrecht points out that Inclusion+ is designed to help with that piece of follow-up. A program administrator sees the results and then targets activities to managers and employees in the program to help them do the one thing they can do now versus the laundry list of things they could do someday. Those could be delivered via emails, texts, and push notifications, explains Albrecht, but to be effective, managers need trust that the tips or videos they get work, and that it’s okay to put people first. “Managers can use technology to remind them of their purpose at work, and to serve the people that build the business,” he says, especially when people are wearing “busy” like a badge of honor. “Otherwise work is more stress than inspiration,” he argues.

As both solutions are still brand new (Inclusion+ launched last month and the HI Index is currently rolling out), it’s too soon to see how well they will work to improve retention rates at participating companies. However, when Albrecht and Lewis were asked how long such tools should be put to use to get the maximum benefit, they both agreed

“I don’t think there is a maximum benefit to equality and innovation,” says Albrecht. While Lewis notes that no company can get this “right” after six months and leave it alone because he says, “by definition, inclusion is an intentional and ongoing engagement process. Therefore, measuring inclusion should be, intentional, and ongoing.” Albrecht also points out the fact that people come and go from employers all the time, so the need for frequent pulse check-ins is ongoing.


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There is a danger that people who feel like outsiders will more likely quit, Lewis believes. Albrecht agrees. “It’s also important to remember that employee perception is company reality. If people feel excluded, they may fear to put their innovations out there, they may feel less connected to their work community, and they may quit.” However, he says that statistically speaking, outliers skewing the results of the surveys is small across the larger companies using the tools.

Can this solution work more effectively than a traditional diversity and inclusion program to make workers feel more connected to each other? Measurement of inclusion is often the weakest link in these programs, Lewis observes. “If you hire a diverse set of employees but don’t have a culture that authentically supports them, then they’ll leave,” Albrecht says. By focusing on measurement as well as taking specific actions to mitigate workers’ feelings of isolation, a culture of inclusion can grow. The AI, he says, makes it very simple and ties to business goals.

About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.