How chatbots are breezing in to the workplace
Office workers around the globe are turning to a new assistant to answer their HR queries and requests for data, one who never calls in sick or steps away from their desk for meetings.
The advent of chatbots—conversational artificial intelligence (AI) tools developed for specific functions—is giving employees on-demand assistance to information when and where they need it.
The prospect of faster access to information, and customized yet pre-programed responses to minimize misunderstandings in communication, can make chatbots sound appealing in any industry – especially when they also help to cut customer service costs by as much as 30 percent.
Until recently, they have been more commonly deployed as consumer-facing tools, with pop-up windows encouraging online customers to ask about goods or services, from cars and shoes to hotel reservations and insurance quotes. Now, however, with rapidly advancing interactive text and voice technology, workplace strategists are bringing chatbots into the internal office environment too.
“Chatbots have the potential to be one of the biggest drivers of efficiency in the workplace—and one of the more popular,” says Pushpa Gowda, Global Technology Engagement Director, JLL. “Given that messaging apps are the preferred means of communication for Millennials, chatbots can be an easy sell. And all of us, not just Millennials, have come to expect responsive, personalized, on-demand services and information.”
Enter the office chatbot
A growing number of companies are making chatbots a small but increasingly significant part of office life as employees turn to virtual assistants such as Microsoft’s Cortana, Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa to help them complete work-related tasks on company-owned devices. At present, almost 20 percent of companies have introduced chatbots into their workplace, a figure expected to jump to 57 percent by 2021, according to research from IT professionals network Spiceworks.
Many initiatives come from the HR department, such as EY’s Onboarding Buddy, Intel’s Ivy, built in 2013 to answer queries around pay and benefits, and Unilever’s more recent trial of CoachBot for team-building. “Such tools can deliver on several employee experience goals, from connecting employees with real-time guidance especially if there have been recent changes in company policies, to helping ensure no new recruit is left without an immediate point of contact for questions they may not feel comfortable asking their co-workers,” says Gowda. “In turn, productivity increases and employees feel more engaged, ultimately boosting talent retention,” she adds.
There’s also the whole world of convenience available with a virtual private assistant, which can facilitate office management such as order office supplies that are running low, process invoices, schedule business meetings or make hotel reservations, to name a few.
“The use of smart technology has now become a standard for many companies, allowing employees to access anything at anytime, anywhere on any device,” says Gowda. “Yet in today’s always-on culture, completing lots of small, basic tasks can be extremely time-consuming. Chatbots are already saving employees countless hours of looking for information or tracking down colleagues for help. And they, in turn, are then freed up to focus on higher-value activities.”
Five-year-plan: Moving chatbots from push, to pull
Theoretically, chatbots can now be implemented for any process that interacts with technology and has a decision tree process. What does that mean for the future?
“There are endless ways AI could be deployed in tomorrow’s workplace, assuming some key advances are made,” says Gowda. “Today, chatbots are typically programmed to respond to specific words, phrases and decision trees, as opposed to conversational language. But advances in natural language processing and facial recognition could make future chatbots better at understanding their human users, including their humor and other nuances of natural language.”
As those capabilities improve, so will the way humans interact with them. Rather than simply going to a chatbot for information to pull from, employees may be able to “push” a chatbot to operate on their behalf—pushbots that serve as employee advocates.
For now, chatbots are still very much in their early stages in the workplace but as humans get more comfortable with the rise of AI in their daily lives, chatbots are not only going to become more accepted at work—they’re also likely to become more expected.