Jobs and the Future of Work

What role could AI play in the 'return to work' phase?

There are many ways that artificial intelligence, such as this robot, can help integrate greater emotional support into the workplace

Compassion should be at the heart of employers' return-to-office plans. Image: Unsplash/Alex Knight

Anand Rao
Global Leader, Artificial Intelligence, PwC
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  • Anand Rao, global artificial intelligence leader at PwC, believes AI could be used to provide emotional and individual support in the workplace.
  • This could be particularly useful during the 'return-to-work' phase, as many people have shown a decline in mental health during the pandemic.
  • For example, AI could flag the anniversary of a loved one's death, so that employers know when their staff could be experiencing emotional struggles.
  • It could also tackle problems such as productivity loss and employee burnout.
  • However, businesses need to ensure that they use AI responsibly and fairly, while respecting the privacy of employees.

As organizations begin strategizing how to bring employees back to the office, employers need to not only greet employees at the door with kindness and compassion, but build compassion into the heart of their return-to-office plans.

Intrinsically, I know a compassionate workplace performs better than others; I’ve witnessed it over the years, especially this last year where we’ve needed understanding and support more than ever. Research also backs this up.

Recently, I’ve been taking a closer look at how we can do this with artificial intelligence. With almost six decades of research and work in the field, I’ve seen AI detect facial expressions, detect fraud, create maintenance schedules for aircrafts and cars, understand emotions of customers and customer representatives from call center conversations, and more recently estimate the spread of Covid-19 and its economic impact.

At PwC, we’ve been using AI to redesign our offices with optimal, socially distanced spacing and alternative uses for office space as we strategize our return to work. Yet, less often have I seen AI build and guide emotional support at companies. Thinking ahead to employees’ needs as many transition back to office life, it might go without saying, but there will be a massive opportunity to do so.

A role for AI when the office reopens

Loss. Grief. Fear. These emotions have gripped everyone over the past 14 months. This mental and emotional damage from the pandemic could linger for months or even years from now. While widespread vaccine rollouts might bring some relief, the reverse-culture shock of returning to office life could exacerbate the trauma.

Have you read?

But what if organizations could pair AI with HR and performance systems already in place to identify and provide the individualized, personal support employees need through the changes and continued uncertainty ahead?

In fact, there already are three main areas where AI can easily support and enable a more compassionate workplace culture.

How AI can help with trauma and moments in time

Trauma is often tied to moments in time, and AI can help guide HR teams around those moments for employees. For instance, I’ve seen companies use AI to flag specific dates to HR when individuals might be feeling particularly low—the anniversary of a loved one’s death, for example—so the team can offer support on and around those times.

While it might be easy for someone to remember a date like that a year from now, years down the line, it’s likely our memories will fade and our focus will shift. However, for those affected by loss, the memory and feeling will remain clear for far longer. We can’t let employee help slip through the cracks in the years or decades to come. Alerted by AI, HR can proactively ensure extra team support is there if the employee needs it, whether the employee asks for time off last minute or is struggling with their workload that week.

How AI can help fight employee burnout

Dips in performance could signal an employee needs mental or emotional support. Using AI-driven tools, HR and managers can engage with employees to get to the root of the issue and offer help.

This can replace reactionary disciplinary action for “slacking off.” One bad day, week, or month doesn’t define a person or their performance. Employers should focus on helping employees through difficult times instead.

On the flip side, maybe an employee is performing exceptionally well, but they’re logging on early, logging off late, and putting in more hours than ever before. In a remote work environment, it might be hard for a manager to catch this and check in with an employee. On paper, the employee reads exceptionally. However, it could indicate burnout is on the horizon.

We have used AI models that can simulate the “burnout” behavior and help you take action before it is too late. AI could flag the extra hours and recommend managers sit down with the employee to figure out why they’re logging the longer hours and how to help. Maybe there’s something stressful outside of work they’re dealing with, they’re struggling to prioritize tasks, or even other team members are giving them unrealistic workloads.

How AI can underscore employee choice

Many companies already leverage AI-powered tools to design personalized compensation plans, customized for employees’ individual needs. For instance, some companies will provide student loan support for younger employees, or more paid time off for new parents.

AI can deliver the same personalized options for workers coming out of the pandemic based on their unique needs. Do they need permanent work-from-home options? Or do they need help with childcare or additional support for mental health? The latter two are things that 48% and 72% of businesses (respectively) plan to support.

One part of AI’s job here is to ensure the employees who need these things receive access to them. AI can “nudge” employees and help them find and navigate the right benefits at the right time. Often employees don’t know what benefits they have, or find the benefits challenging to leverage.

AI could also help employees set up flexible work schedules optimized to their situation. If they need to manage child care or another type of care for a loved one, AI can provide recommendations on when it might be best to unplug during the day, and help reschedule meetings with colleagues to protect those times.

Responsible AI is still key

All of these measures to help employees need to be taken in a responsible manner, with responsible AI principles that respect the privacy of individuals, ensure fairness, and provide transparency and accountability.


How is the World Economic Forum ensuring the responsible use of technology?

Put into action, smart AI can tackle the productivity loss, employee churn, and burnout that can cost businesses hundreds of millions of dollars a year. But investing in your people isn’t just good business. When done responsibly through AI, laying the foundation for a compassion-first workplace culture is critical in 2021 and beyond.

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Related topics:
Jobs and the Future of WorkEmerging TechnologiesWellbeing and Mental Health
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