A recent study by Oracle and Future Workplace reveals that artificial intelligence is reshaping the way people view their workplace. In fact, 64% of those surveyed said they’d trust a robot more than they’d trust their manager.
The study presents a strong case that AI is already winning the hearts and minds of employees. The majority of respondents say they are “excited” and “optimistic” about new technologies in the office. New technologies, according to respondents, will help them master new skills (36%), gain more free time (36%), and expand their current role so that it’s more strategic (28%).
All this suggests that employees are embracing new technologies as a means of enriching their jobs and delegating work they don’t find of interest. It also confirms what many studies have shown: that managers need to work harder to earn their employees’ trust.
Given this positive relationship employees have with AI, are we looking toward a future where technology replaces humans in the workplace? Are interpersonal work relationships a thing of the past?
To find out, I spoke with several executives involved with these new technologies and got their perspective on what this means for managers across industries.
The world of robots and beyond
All of us can envision robots working in industrial warehouses, automatically picking products from the shelves and delivering them to conveyor belts.
A robot is a programmable machine that can carry out a series of actions—in most cases autonomously. Fully 82% of those polled agree robots can do certain jobs better than their boss can. Robots are great at highly repetitive tasks, which they do flawlessly, quickly, and without tiring.
But robots represent only a small fraction of the world of artificial intelligence, and not all robots operate with AI. In a work environment, AI can provide information, maintain work schedules, solve problems, manage budgets, answer questions about data, and even screen prospective employees.
“Companies have a tremendous opportunity to take this large swath of work and automate and digitally transform it,” says Jeff Grisenthwaite, vice president of product at software company Catalytic. “In so doing, they can deliver a better experience to their customers and partners.”
Advanced technologies can also improve aspects of the employee experience. Take performance reviews. Paul Pellman, CEO of employee experience platform Kazoo, says his company has designed a system that replaces the annual performance review with a continuous feedback loop throughout the year. “Your best employees are looking for more than once-a-year feedback,” says Pellman. “In fact, annual performance reviews are not supportive; they are judgmental, insofar as they are often tied to raises or promotions—or the lack thereof.”
Kazoo’s performance review platform, according to Pellman, allows employees to set their goals, align their goals with those of the larger organization, and receive regular feedback on how well they are meeting these goals. Pellman says, “Our platform also provides guidelines for quarterly performance reviews and mid-quarterly check-ins.”
These new technologies can help create a positive workplace culture. Kazoo has designed a “Reward and Recognition” platform that enables everyone in a company to applaud others at any time. With this system, a new employee may receive several personalized messages from colleagues as high up as the CEO, welcoming them into the company.
Once an employee is on board, she can give a shout out to a colleague saying, “Thanks for helping me feel welcome.” The system uses technology, but the words and sentiments exchanged among employees are crafted by individuals. This platform, which Pellman says is used by 80% of employees at least once a month, “creates a culture of recognition” because everyone in the company sees all the accolades posted.
How can managers gain trust
With all the excitement about AI and advanced technologies, it’s fair to ask if managers can win over employees and be perceived as more trustworthy than machines.
The answer is definitely yes. Humans have capabilities that the new technologies don’t have. According to the Oracle and Future Workplace study, respondents said their managers are better than robots at “understanding my feelings” (45%), “coaching me” (33%), “creating or promoting a work culture” (29%), and “evaluating team performance” (26%).
The secret for managers is to develop these capabilities, and delegate to AI the more routine tasks that occupy them. Right now, according to an Accenture study referenced in the Harvard Business Review, managers spend over half of their time on low-value work that machines could perform. For example, a manager might spend hours puzzling over expenses, travel policies, or the budget. These tasks take the manager away from her team members or customers.
Delegating that low-level work to a machine provides more time for the things that matter. “Machines will elevate the manager’s experience,” says Emily He, senior vice president of Human Capital Management at Oracle. “People see the difference between artificial intelligence and human intelligence, and they want from their managers things that machines can’t provide—things like empathy, personalized coaching, and career advice.”
Imagine a workplace where managers, unencumbered by work that machines can do, can focus on people. “AI and machine learning are going to bring humanity back to the workplace,” says He. “[In] the last hundred years the advance of technology has made the workplace less human because the interface with technology has not been very natural. With AI, humans can go back to what is distinctly human and what they enjoy doing, which is to connect with each other, work on projects together, and generate new ideas.”
Managers need to be prepared for this new world that will demand effective leadership. Soft skills training is a must, as is a deeper understanding of, and capacity for, emotional intelligence. According to the Accenture study, managers must give greater priority to the interpersonal skills that will be needed in an AI-driven environment.
AI will be a partner in this new, more humanistic world of work. “Managers need to foster a culture,” says He, “where the creative use of AI is encouraged and allows team members to bring forward new ideas for the business.”
Update: Emily He’s name has been corrected.