What will employees feel like having a robot boss?

It was a bit of a surprise the other day when a few moments into a phone call with a sociable and inquisitive voice, I realised I was talking to a robot. 

If conversational computing is happening now, when will the robots outsmart me for an entire call? I’d happily wager it won’t be long.

There is much talk and fear about Artificial Intelligence (AI), robots and jobs. For instance, The Verge discusses a report from the OECD, an inter-governmental group of high-income countries, that says fewer jobs are at risk than estimated by previous forecasts – although the low paid and younger people are particularly at risk.

ADP’s research, reported in The Independent, shows that UK employers aren’t preparing their staff, and a third of employees are worried about their prospects.

I wonder if it’s still seen as a future issue and opportunity, as opposed to a current one. Without doubt, AI is rapidly streamlining HR workflow processes perhaps in recruiting and managing talent, collaboration, coaching and learning or compliance.

Yet it was these words - what will an employee feel like when their boss is a robot? – mentioned by Anton Fishman, an HR and AI expert, from his discussions with Oxford Brookes University that flagged to me the impact AI will have on HR, leaders, employees and business generally.

HR is the essential glue

I see HR increasingly – and essentially - being the glue that keeps employers and employees from coming apart in the world of AI. Where workers rely on pay and hopeful job engagement, and businesses rely on productivity and profits, HR has an essential, new-found strategic role (to add to their burgeoning list). Some companies are already entirely focused on AI and robotics, others are not even close.

Alistair Shepherd, Founder of Saberr explained at the recent AI & Robotics Directors’ Forum, “Using AI for business transformation is entirely possible. Yet we must be sensitive to what works for people, not just what works for technology. And for that we need HR.”

It’s not difficult to see the allure of AI for businesses: robots won’t have unproductive days. Or secret crushes, or play politics. They’re not going to worry about a poorly relative or how to pay their bills.  The opportunity to reduce costs, avoid risk, increase productivity and revenue are immense. 

If they aren’t already, more HR teams will be switching their discussion from ‘employee engagement’ to ‘employee engagement with AI’, as well as: what new roles will there be? How will employees be helped to transition and upskilled quickly enough? What will our business ethics look like? What is the psychological impact of the workforce? Will leaders be proactive or reactive?

Maria Semykoz, Workplace Analytics Architect of Gallup, pointed out at the Directors’ Forum, that AI is posed to take over human ability to solve problems and answer questions within 15 years.

She said, “Decision-making science provides growing evidence that human ability to make accurate assessments and predictions is severely limited. Yet humans will remain better at posing questions due to our ability to learn from a small number of data points, imagination, creativity, empathy and value-based judgement.”

She talked about preparing a culture to make the best of AI, not least leadership readiness, behaviour change framework, and evidence-based decision making.

Job losses or task losses?

It may well be that AI will be a task-focused productivity boon for business – rather than have direct job losses in the short term - and without doubt, new industries and roles will be created. This makes it very important for us all to remember exactly what human traits are necessary, not just to work to earn money, but work to enjoy, interactions that make us productive, valuable and right for the business.

It’s no wonder that AI, in whatever form it takes, feels both a personal threat and an enormous opportunity. 

But along with threat and opportunity comes the unknown and, right now, even the experts don’t know where it’s going to take us. 

One thing I do know is that it’s time to jump on board. This journey is going to be better with a planned route.

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Author’s note: Andrew Burgess, author of The Executive Guide to Artificial Intelligence, also spoke at the seminar mentioned. His book may be a good starting point as it talks about how to identify and implement applications for AI in an organisation.

Kay PhelpsComment