At the CIPD London Future of Work conference last Monday we were asked in the keynote speech “Would you want a hug from a robot?”. The rise of automation and Artificial Intelligence (AI) and its impact on the future of work is a theme gaining increasing momentum and attention.
I am told that many or most of the jobs that my daughters’ generation will do, have yet to be invented and many jobs currently being done now will no longer exist. I can well believe it. FOBO (Fear of Becoming Obsolete) is now a “thing”.
Maybe it is a thing, but looking at some of the current experimentation with AI*, there is still some way to go before we might potentially be replaced at the levels of sophistication being predicted by some. What I have seen and heard at the events I have attended leaves me in no doubt of that.
In April, I attended the Employee Engagement Summit at which one of the presentations was from Ross Parker, People and Communication Manager at LV=.
They surveyed staff on the recognition and reward mechanisms in use at LV= and found that the third most effective method of recognition (behind gift vouchers in top position and a small gift in second) was a simple thank you. A genuine expression of gratitude from the employee’s immediate manager, which costs nothing other than a couple of minutes out of another human being’s day, was valued more highly than a bottle of champagne from a divisional director who wouldn’t normally have contact with the employee.
The proximity of relationship and the manner of delivery is significant here. If an employee craves genuine and heartfelt approval from their immediate manager more than they do from a manager higher up the business, what impact if recognition programmes became automated and faceless?
Later in the same conference, we heard from Moira Clark, Professor of Strategic Marketing at Henley Business School. Her research findings over many years suggest that employee engagement alone is not sufficient to improve business profitability. It is only when that engagement forms part of an overall service climate, that the bottom line sees real benefit.
One study reports that customer satisfaction rates improved by 41% by virtue of being smiled at by their point of contact during a face to face experience. Businesses that automate aspects of customer service to improve efficiency may see satisfaction levels wane as the personal touch disappears. As customer satisfaction decreases, brand loyalty can take a hit. The bright idea may turn out to be a false economy.
I’m here for you
Taking my Mental Health First Aid course in April confirmed to me the power of simply being there for someone, whether you know them well or not.
Like physical first aid, the purpose of MHFA is to provide a first response in a situation of crisis so that professional help can then be sought. Although we are taught to recognise indicators of certain conditions to help with first response, we are not trained to diagnose or treat them. The range of conditions and the different ways in which they may present is simply staggering. Regardless of the condition a person may have or the circumstances in which one may encounter that person, a crucial part of MHFA is to offer non-judgmental and empathetic listening.
Beyond that first response, and given a chronic lack of funding for mental illness, AI is increasingly being seen as part of the solution for the lack of available therapy for everyone who needs it.
However, even those who advocate the use of some form of “therapist bot” acknowledge that human interaction remains an indispensable part of psychological treatment.
Human beings are complex, unique, frustrating, fascinating and contradictory. Artificial Intelligence will become increasingly intelligent and may become better able to understand how we function. But it remains artificial. The difference is humanity, empathy, and gut feel – all things that, I believe, will always transcend the most sophisticated of neural network algorithms.
I’m happy to have a chat with a robot from time to time, but I think I’ll keep my hugs for humans.
*thanks to David D’Souza for sharing the amusing article referred to at the beginning of this post.