How will AI change the world of benefits and HR communications?

Need to know: 

  • Using the wealth of data available, artificial intelligence can ensure that employees understand the value of benefits to them as individuals.
  • The conversational tone of chatbots can help employees navigate complex subjects, while also combating isolation as workforces become more remote.
  • Anonymity mixed with seemingly human interactions can be the perfect combination to open up difficult conversations around taboo subjects.

Chatbots have, in some form, been around since 1966, when German-American computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum invented the first, Eliza; since then, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning has come on apace, to the point where many interact with Siri or Alexa on a daily basis.

According to Oracle’s October 2019 research, AI @ work, 36% of UK employees agree that AI is better than humans at providing unbiased advice, while 64% of respondents globally would trust a robot more than their manager.

More telling, perhaps, is that while the proportion of those surveyed who thought human managers were better than AI at understanding their feelings was a substantial 45%, this still means that the majority are either unsure or firmly in the other camp.

As a culture, we may no longer be tied to the human element of human interactions.

Orwellian as it might sound, the advent of computer systems that harness both empirical and emotional intelligence is, in fact, an opportunity for employers to ensure their communications with staff are profoundly effective.

Tailoring and personalisation

The data available to employers about staff is manifold; demographic information, marital status, job type and location, age, and financial status, are all factors might influence how certain benefits should be packaged. An individual’s take-up of benefits can itself help guide an employer on where to signpost next.

Tom Peraux, communications executive at Capita, says: “Not knowing enough about people means that the way [employers] speak to them is broad brush, but [if organisations] can [package benefits] in a way that’s going to help [employees] with the things that they’re trying to achieve, it helps get across the [message] of why [they are] actually offering these things to people.”

However, there is a large base of information to aggregate and collate, and the data pool is only increasing. AI systems allow for analysis to occur with little time investment from HR decision-makers whose time would be better spent on value-add activities.

Elizabeth Basten, chief marketing officer at Wealth Wizards, says: “Because an AI has a conversation with an individual and learns from it, the nature of the conversation is then tailored towards the individual, and [it] can then communicate in a way that resonates with them.”

Measuring engagement

The other side of this coin is the ability to mine data relating to the success of different communications campaigns, particularly if this can then be broken down into demographics; for example, an employer might pull information about whether working parents are more likely to engage with an email or a push notification, and at what time of day messages are most effective.

Ankur Modi, founder and chief executive officer at StatusToday, says: “Taking the extra leap into employee engagement is really about understanding how different roles, and different types of employees, might engage differently with the business. We now have several tools and technologies that can benchmark group behaviour, so we can understand typical engagement, and therefore identify where there might be problems.”

Preventative approach

Beyond just allowing tailored communications based on what each employee needs at the time, AI can also have a predictive application.

In theory, tracking employees’ anonymised data, and perhaps even drawing from wearable fitness technology, could allow for preventative communications to be pushed out to those most in need of certain health interventions, before sickness absence takes its toll on the business.

Malcolm Cairns, chief executive officer at Harley Street Concierge (HSC), says: “The whole ability to move towards the preventative agenda is really important. It’s important to encourage people to seek care or to ask questions.”

This does not just apply to physical health and wellbeing; the anonymised data gathered from chatbots such as Wealth Wizards’ MyEva can, for example, ensure that employers can proactively push out relevant messages about financial health.

“What an employer gets is anonymised data on what financial wellbeing issue is top of mind for what percentage of the employee population, so that if they’re going to have any internal communication about an issue, it’s relevant,” Basten explains.

Easy conversation

Tailoring and targeting communications to gain maximum engagement is an important perk, but what are the benefits of the format of the conversations themselves?

Chatbots are pieces of software that draw on AI to simulate human conversations. Their ability to gather and analyse data is, arguably, only a secondary consideration in the discussion of their impact on communications.

Rather than being faced with a wall of text on an intranet, or vying for the attention of a busy HR professional for advice on what options are available, chatbots provide a simple, intuitive and easily navigable entry point to understanding complex benefits programmes.

The ability to have a relevant, tailored and human-like conversation, even full in the knowledge that there is no human on the other end, may have wider impacts on wellbeing, particularly as remote working becomes increasingly the norm. “Using chatbots will open up more of a dialogue with people, to feel more connected to the information that’s being put to [them],” says Peraux. “This is going to help fill some gaps within the changing employee-employer relationship.”

Avoiding assumption

If the data being drawn from is well curated, AI can be the answer to reducing negative human influences, such as unconscious bias. This is why it has thus far been predominantly used in recruitment, but should not be overlooked throughout the rest of the employee lifecycle, says Modi.

“AI can come in and help managers understand the state of their workforce a bit better, but also employees can self-regulate ever so slightly more,” he explains. “AI’s role is to remove bias, introduce objectivity, and make systems and processes dramatically more efficient.”

A computer system is also better able to collate data from across an organisation, so chatbots can help break down the assumptions and siloes that naturally emerge when different teams take responsibility for different categories of reward.

“That gives [the employee] all the information on a problem they might have, or just generally [if they are] looking for the good stuff,” says Peraux. “Bringing everything together and having a chatbot which is able to take the information from all sources and present it back to the employee in a way that really feels they get the best of it is really important.”

This may even have the effect of changing the way the industry views benefits, allowing HR decision-makers to more easily see reward as a whole entity, rather than a series of boxes, as has been necessary historically.

Combined efforts

However, real human interaction is still incredibly important, particularly when it comes to healthcare, says Cairns. “I would draw out a very clear distinction between that which is administrative and that which is emotional, which is where we need to still get a human voice; that’s crucially important.”

The best approach, then, is one that combines the strengths of both automated chatbots and human intuition.

“One of the misconceptions is that it’s all or nothing, but the rise of the machines doesn’t mean the fall of the humans,” Basten explains. “A lot of organisations use AI in order to create a relationship, a rapport, at a time to suit an individual, and then if needs be refer that individual to human help, acting as that relationship layer in between.”

Modi adds: “[Employers should] make sure that the decision-making is not entirely dependent on the AI; AI should serve as an augmentation of existing processes.”

Taboo topics

With the use of chatbots, communications on difficult topics, such as mental ill-health, abuse or problem debt, can begin in a safe, anonymous space, through which the employee can then be signposted to right course of action, one of which might be human support.

“If you’re in a terrible situation, you’re really worried and have a fear of being judged, [with an AI] you’re more likely to open up, to feel relaxed about it,” says Basten.

“It’s about moving those conversations away from the workspace, where in a traditional model [employees] had to go to HR or directly to [their] line manager,” Cairns adds. “Opening a channel that allows an individual to reach the service [they] need, automation can help with that.”

Although keeping these conversations anonymous might reconfirm their status as taboos, opening the door in this way can help to build resilience and trust, demonstrate that the employer cares enough to offer support, and get people used to discussing difficult topics.

To ensure this trust is well-founded, employers must clearly recognise how matters such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) apply to the automation or collection of information, says Cairns.

One of the benefits of using AI is that it not only brings topics like financial stress out of the shadows and into normal conversation, but makes support universally available, free from outdated assumptions.

“Stressing about money is not the exclusive remit of any societal group, it’s a fact of life,” Basten concludes. “The financial services industry historically offers advice at different stages of people’s lives, assuming that everybody gets married around the same time, leaves university around the same time, [and] is in a position to retire at 65, but life just isn’t like that.

“People’s lives flex and change, life events happen, and guidance needs to be available all the time and needs to adapt to an individual’s circumstances.”