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How HR can use AI chatbots to drive employee trust

Employees are increasingly more trusting of AI chatbots — but what does this mean for HR teams and employers?

MaryLou Costa

Unleash Your Curiosity From onboarding new starters to monitoring wellness levels, there’s no doubt that AI chatbots are transforming HR. But how can companies ensure a lack of trust doesn’t stand in their way?

  • 47% of HR leaders plan to increase investment in AI.
  • 50% of employees trust an AI robot over their boss.
  • Chatbots are helping organizations increase trust among employees.

Using a Santa-bot for an annual charity Christmas collection might seem simple, but for customer service firm Moneypenny, it helped demonstrate an important point to its 1,000 employees. That chatbots could be useful, positive — and trustworthy; a pressing point for HR leaders, especially when 47% of them plan to increase their investment in AI to better manage an increasingly digital workforce. 

With 50% of respondents in a 2019 Oracle study admitting to asking a robot for advice over their boss, there’s evidence employees are warming up to the regular presence of AI.

But with AI tipped to fuel the digital transformation of HR as teams remain largely remote, trust and transparency must rise to the top of the agenda.

[Read more: Four Ways AI Can Transform HR]

The Santa-Bot: Boosting morale

For Moneypenny, the Santa-bot is just one of the many ways the company has boosted its use of bots in the workplace over the past year.

Working with The Bot Platform, its HR team created a suite of experiences to drive engagement with staff, improve company morale and support CSR initiatives, with a high level of trust among the workforce. 

“The Santa bot was a huge hit, with a 95% engagement rate,” says Ceri Henfrey, Moneypenny’s chief operating officer. “Chat messages in general tripled during 2020 as we use it as a quick way to check if staff have all that they need, mentally and physically. We ran a number of chatbots when remote working first began to manage the tech side efficiently. We continue to run these, checking about work-life balance and needs.” 

An average 85% response rate has buoyed the company’s confidence in internal engagement chatbots, so much so that it is now introducing an FAQ-style chatbot for new joiners and a weekly “How are you doing?” bot on a Friday. “Bots are a great tool to further enhance our culture,” Henfrey enthuses.

At the other end of the bot rollout spectrum is Helen Matthews, chief people officer at advertising agency Ogilvy, which, like Moneypenny, has dialed up employee engagement over tech platforms throughout the pandemic, but admits they’re in “the embryonic stages” of chatbots. 

Matthews will be testing the waters with more functional applications like desk and room-bookings (when the time comes), but is planning on a cautious, sparing approach, preferring to protect “the human element.”

“When you’ve spent many years building trust, the last thing you want is for people to be frustrated by an automated response,” she considers.

“People thrive off people in real conversations, which is why I think that initially for our industry, bots will be used to handle quite functional stuff.”

A chatbot strategy built on transparency

That’s why Ben Eubanks, principal analyst at Lighthouse Research & Advisory and founder of HR community upstartHR, advises that employers shouldn’t hide the fact these are automated tools, and in such transparency, should be clear on the outcomes too.

“Just like employee surveys, they are collecting information the employer can use to create a better employee experience. If anyone, from an individual contributor to the CHRO, sees those kinds of outcomes, then employees would be more than willing to interact with a bot. Research shows they are comfortable with it,” Eubanks advises.

“Answer the ‘what’s in it for me’ without making employees work hard to do it themselves. If you’re going to use valuable time talking with a bot, will it answer your question more quickly? Will it raise your issue to the right person? Will it help your manager understand you better?”

Being clear not just on the value to the employee but how the information being gathered via chatbots supports a company’s overall strategy is crucial, elaborates Paris Petgrave, founder, and chief executive of HR tech platform We Love Work, which works with organizations like the UK’s National Health Service and National Grid, a multinational utility company based in London.

“If an organization promotes themselves as being ‘family first’ then you can collect the data to prove whether that is exactly what is happening within the business. It’s about strategically aligning business goals,” Petgrave explains.

“A lot of them will be HR goals, like, ‘are our employees happy and supported?’ Or if the priority is to be a sustainable company, you can ask, “do you feel we are sustainable? Equally, if a business aim is to become more diverse, you can understand the response that is actually coming from employees and what their daily experience is.”

[Read more: 6 tips to help you refine your HR data strategy]

Whatever the rationale for internal chatbots, the importance of communication can’t be underestimated, notes Adam Harrold, founder and chief executive of conversational AI specialists Humley, which counts EY among its customer base.

“A good communication strategy enables HR teams to understand and mitigate any concerns that employees may have, further removing the stigma around the technology,” he believes.

This has certainly helped Moneypenny win its people over. “Only a small number of our wellbeing staff see our data. As with all employee data it’s handled confidentially — our staff know this and trust us to do the right thing,” reveals Henfrey.

“When we talked to them about launching the bots they were excited. We were fortunate there was never a barrier to their use.” 

The technology is clearly helping bridge the gap between employers and employees but if success is to continue well into the future, chatbot strategies will have to be people-centric and transparent.

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