June 15, 2024

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Should HR assuage any employee fears in AI?

HR Communications expert Kay Phelps, owner of HR Specialist PR Agency, PR in HR, considers whether HR should immediately reassure staff on AI, or whether a more strategic, long-term approach is more appropriate.

Should HR communications about AI be positive?

I read an article recently with this at its core: “As communicators, we have a responsibility to talk about AI in a positive way, to help ease the way for its assimilation into everyday life.”

I don’t disagree in one sense – moving the conversation on from scaremongering is important because AI is here and it is very likely to change so much, not least how we’re employed.

The PR Week article referenced just a few snapshots of fear and worry; a survey commissioned by Hanover Communications showed that 21% of people are concerned that AI will cause unemployment, and 46% of respondents said they feared the long-term implications of AI more than the long-term implications of Brexit. And Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England referred to AI as a “merciless” technological revolution.

So as a communicator in HR specifically, it made me question whether indeed HR has a responsibility to communicate with their employees about current or future job prospects.

Every company will be different. If your business is entirely focused on AI already, then employees are already immersed and won’t be worried.

It’s the employees who aren’t there yet – the ones who fear it more than Brexit impacts, the ones in certain industries who read a dramatic headline and add future employment to their ‘what if worries’.

Take, for example, call centres, where the work is repetitive. The Guardian predicted that UK centres would lose 46,000 call centre jobs by 2021 due to AI.

Could AI present opportunities for employees, and should HR communicate this?

Yet, Teliopti’s Nick Smith said that AI in call centres elevates the importance of human skills and should be welcomed rather than feared.

He said, “Good customer service starts with people rather than machines. It is your human agents who know if customers are happy and which channels they prefer and it’s their human managers who will act on customer feedback, improve call scripts and agent training and then enhance business processes that proactively manage ‘predictable’ situations and resolve problems quickly”.

I’ve heard it said many times 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. It 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.

Ultimately a big hurdle for businesses in AI adoption is going to be getting employees, customers and investors on board – and reassuring them that human qualities are valued. And that’s where knowledge and communication comes in.

So should HR be communicating about AI?  I think there are definite situations where they can and should. But they shouldn’t be team cheerleaders without anything to cheer about. I’d want to assuage peoples’ concerns, give them guidance on where the company is heading in a sensible way.

Before any communication with employees, though, it’s important to understand the situation as much as possible (bearing in mind AI is not a fixed thing and no one knows where it’s heading).

If I didn’t know already, I’d be asking stakeholders for starters: What is the business plan? How will AI impact our operations? What can we currently see as the impact on current or future employees? What new roles will there be? What roles won’t there be? What skills do we need in our talent? Is re-skilling needed? Are the people we have the right ones? Could our business ethics change? Could AI have a psychological impact on our workforce? And if yes, how could this affect productivity? How do we best communicate AI to employees so they come along for the ride?

I’d then use this to create a communication plan. Who are the audiences? What is the timeline? What are the three key messages we want them to understand (people find it easier to remember things in threes)? How can we reiterate our messages? What communication tools do we have to hand?

As I wrote in a blog last year, HR increasingly is 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, customer satisfaction, innovation and profits, HR has a new strategic role. The opportunity to reduce costs, avoid risk, increase productivity and revenue are immense.