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Commercial-real estate company Squarefoot has been making tentative steps, like others, to return to its New York office space over the last few months.
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But office space has become a commodity, and Squarefoot — with 60-staff — is one of a number that has built an algorithm to help allocate which of its 27 staff gets priority.
In the early months of lockdown, Squarefoot’s staff developed a system to allocate that resource. First, it identified four categories of office-based amenities — software only available in the office or connected whiteboards — then, on a one-to-five scale, staff rated how important these amenities were to carry out their ‘mission.’ On certain days, Squarefoot’s brokers, who show prospective customers around new office spaces, have a greater need to be in the office than product designers, for instance. Each employer has a possible 30 hours a week that can be allocated.
“The beauty of it is that it’s impersonal, everyone accepts the judgment of the computer, there’s no tendency to argue,” said Squarefoot president Michael Colacino. Squarefoot plans to sell the product to other organizations once it’s been road-tested, so far there hasn’t been enough demand to return. As employers are starting to find, while most staff over the last six months have been more closely connected to their immediate team members, relationships between the rest of the organization have frayed.
Bots beat people for mental health support
Other companies have drastically accelerated their digital tech capabilities since the pandemic forced millions of workers to communicate online. In a global study of 1,2000 staffers by Oracle and Workplace Intelligence, 66% strongly agree that coronavirus has accelerated their companies’ willingness to invest in artificial intelligence tools. Elsewhere, the use of employee communication software has grown as more organizations migrate to remote and virtual workflows: Platform Workvivo has grown 200% since March, catering to the growing number of employers managing remote teams.
But tech tools’ lack of judgment noted by Squarefoot’s Colacino has wider ramifications and benefits. The same study by Oracle and Workplace Intelligence found that 82% of people believe robots can support their mental health better than humans, and 68% of people would prefer to talk to a robot over their manager about stress and anxiety at work.
During the last six months of layered crises, social anxiety and mounting emotional burdens, peoples’ expectations of how companies protect staff is growing. Employees’ mental health has risen to the top of the list of priorities over the last couple of months — 51% noted their company has added mental health support —yet 76% feel like their company should be doing more, according to the same study. Technology is stepping up to fill those roles.
The corporate wellness market is estimated to be worth $97.4 billion by 2027, according to a February 2020 report by Grand View Research (before coronavirus). The number of available third-party corporate wellness tech vendors is rapidly expanding, according to managing partner of Workplace Intelligence Dan Schawbel, and his experience of attending HR trade shows.
“Mental health is the biggest topic of our time, and it has worsened and heightened because of Covid,” said Schawbel. “There will always be new tech and they will always be humans in the workplace, [we need to understand] what their roles are and how will they get along and support each other. From a mental health standpoint, robots are better than humans at providing a judgment-free zone, unbiased to share problems with and answer health questions 24/7. While humans are better are relating to coworkers and feelings of empathy.”
Companies like Adobe, Unilver and Starbucks are investing in well-being seminars, classes and automated bot systems to meet staff mental health requirements. While human therapists will always be needed, tech can supplement therapy because it is so scalable and accessible.
HR, meet tech
With more tech in our professional lives, in a well-being capacity or otherwise, it means that champions are changing.
“We are seeing more and more CIOs and CTOs take the helm in shaping employee culture and engagement through the corporate technology stack, their roles have changed from being a tech enabler to how people experience these platforms,” said Workvivo co-founder, Joe Lennon, adding that this was a trend that started before coronavirus, and, as is often the case, is being led by the large U.S. tech organizations.
“Creating culture digitally is difficult,” Lennon notes. “The problem is the tech is focused on operation needs rather than human needs or the needs of the company.” Companies are increasingly realizing they need to keep engaging staff who are working remote — without overburdening them — otherwise it leads to a lack of motivation and staff churn.
For millions, how we work has been hugely disrupted, forcing employee communication tech to evolve, bringing with it new demands, new skills and new roles.
“Most administrative HR roles will be automated in the next few years,” said Schawbel. “Covid is the gas to light a fire to all the workplace trends that were on the agenda, but not high up.”
Instead, the role of HR will expand beyond staff as numbers and workers, but encompassing their whole life, personality types, at-home situation and personal considerations. That combination of tech and people will be a compelling blend.
“It’s time to move beyond the ‘human resources’ title to something closer to some of the newer titles currently emerging such as people operations, employee experience, employee success or chief experience officer,” said Lennon. “This alone will send a strong message to the workforce.”
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