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Deloitte’s Plan for Fighting Employee Burnout: Let AI Take Over the Dreaded HR and IT Tasks

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Professional services giant Deloitte is using artificial intelligence to reduce productivity 'speed bumps' in human resources and information technology. Raymond Boyd—Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

We've all had those days where getting the simplest thing fixed, or even a basic question answered, takes hours. It might be anything from a mysterious glitch in your desktop computer, to a query about what's covered by your employer's health insurance plan. Whatever your dilemma, resolving it takes a seemingly endless exchange of emails and voicemails that not only distracts you from your real work, but wrecks your mood, too.

If it seems like you're slogging through more of those frustrating days lately than ever before, you're not imagining it. As work keeps getting more complex, fast-paced, and demanding, time vampires have a maddening way of multiplying. Unsurprisingly, a new study from A.I.-powered workflow-management firm ServiceNow says that about half of employees worldwide "struggle to get answers to basic questions" from HR or the IT help desk.

Kristine Dery calls them "speed bumps"—the inefficiencies baked into companies' day-to-day operations that drag down productivity and, ultimately, profits. A research scientist who studies employee experience at the MIT Sloan Center for Information Systems Research (CISR), Dery thinks these obstacles wreak havoc on employee experience (EX). "If you can't do your job efficiently, it's difficult or impossible to be happy in it, or get any satisfaction from it," she says. "So companies now are continually seeking out speed bumps they can eliminate."

That's a smart move, especially in the current labor market where hiring and retaining talent is most employers' biggest challenge. Excessive speed bumps, on top of already ferocious workloads, are a major cause of burnout. And a whopping 96% of managers in a new study from staffing company Robert Half say they're seeing signs of workplace combustion in their employees.

That, in turn, seems to be scaring off the would-be candidates companies want most. More than two-thirds (69%) of job seekers in a different report, from collaboration-platform software firm Hibob, are turning down even high-paying roles if their online due diligence reveals that employers' overall EX is lousy, and especially if current staffers seem exhausted or are headed that way.

It's no wonder, then, that companies of all sizes—from huge global consulting and tech giants to tiny A.I. startups—are charging into the business of A.I.-assisted EX management. It's an enormous potential market. This year's annual Human Capital Trends report from Deloitte notes that, while 84% of organizations rate employee experience as important, only 22% think they're "excellent" at it.

Deloitte first itself introduced an A.I.-supported system called ConnectMe in 2016. It's designed to improve EX in two ways. First, ConnectMe's algorithms draw on vast amounts of in-house data, and then it uses chatbots to deliver fast, frictionless answers and solutions to just about any imaginable speed bump an employee might encounter.

One reason it's so much quicker than interminable rounds of phone tag: People can get the help they need directly from the chatbots "without interacting with another human being," says Bill Docherty, a Deloitte managing director and ConnectMe's general manager. Even so, if for some reason the chatbot can't quite handle a problem, "a human manager will intercede," Docherty adds. "Sometimes, the system can identify what's wrong, but it's still people who decide what to do about it."

Deloitte's system can be customized for individual employees' situations, providing essential information at each step of someone's overseas transfer or re-entry to the U.S., for example, or offering timely support and resources related to another worker's upcoming maternity leave. What Docherty calls "hyper-personalization" is especially appealing, he says, to Millennials and digital-native Gen Zers who've never lived in a one-size-fits-all world and aren't about to start now.

The second way ConnectMe aims to make EX better is that it takes over the repetitive, boring parts of any given job, so that people can spend most of their time and talents on more complex, interesting work that demands a human touch.

As managing director in charge of personal wealth planning at Deloitte, Brian McMahon oversees the long-term financial health of about 600 of the company's partners, principals, and other senior executives. The routine data-gathering, data entry, and number-crunching his team has been doing the old-fashioned way (including "chasing down data on things like salary history and names of insurance beneficiaries from different departments all over the company," he says) will be handled by ConnectMe beginning this fall.

McMahon can't wait. Having all the data and analytics he needs at his fingertips will "eliminate mundane, mind-numbing tasks."

"We'll be able to spend a lot more time meeting one-on-one with our clients, so we can better understand each person's financial goals, worries, and needs," he says. "That's the fun part." That face-time, and the understanding that comes with it, is also the one thing that only humans can do, since it calls for the kind of empathy, EQ, and imagination that A.I. (so far) lacks.

Dery at MIT observes that humans are essential to improving EX in other ways, too, no matter what kinds of A.I. tools and systems companies put in place. She sees a shift in what managers do toward, first, thoroughly understanding the new technology and, second, making sure that everyone who reports to them is on board with it.

"Managers will need to spend more of their time teaching and coaching, to help people develop new habits and new ways of working in a digital world," she says. "In many companies, that's a very different role than they've had before."

It's also, she adds, "much more effective at creating a better employee experience than making huge investments in A.I. alone."

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