How to care for your remote workforce

As employees’ wellbeing is tested to its limits, caring employers are using a range of AI tools to ensure concerns are being heard and properly addressed

As remote working becomes increasingly commonplace, keeping employees engaged and interested in their work, while struggling with the stresses and strains of life during a pandemic, is no easy task. But AI and employee engagement can dovetail together to provide employers with an overview of how to ensure wellness runs through an organisation and pick up on issues before they arise.

All of us are being tested in ways we have never been before, as we struggle under the pressure of rolling lockdowns, time away from family and juggling work-life balances. Sentiment analysis can help ensure an engaged employee remains engaged, and can pick up on issues with health and wellbeing from those who feel uncomfortable, at a time when unemployment is reaching record highs, about coming forward.

The movement in AI and employee engagement is being spearheaded by a range of startups that are working with major employers, helping them feel more able to get a grip on where employees are facing issues, and offering solutions to problems when they arise.

Tackling mental health at work

“We’ve built an extension arm, an anonymised dashboard, which aggregates this pool of data that says, ‘It looks like in your population of employees in London, 67 per cent are at risk of stress or anxiety, 43 per cent of diabetes. And literally 100 per cent of your people are at risk of musculo-skeletal conditions,’” explains Lorena Puica, chief executive of iamYiam, a big data analytics firm.

The company takes countless anonymised data points and, using machine-learning, translates them into a predicted cost of whatever the issues raised will be to an organisation, providing suggestions on how to support employees from the top down. “The idea is to have this integrated end-to-end, from the employee to the corporate and then back to the employee,” says Puica, whose clients include large consulting organisations, law firms, insurance companies, and healthcare services and enterprises worldwide.

The real challenge is tackling the productivity crisis in workforces and ensuring workers feel supported at a time when things are highly uncertain and a number of different aspects of life tug and pull at their time. The UK has some of the worst rates of absenteeism and presenteeism in the world, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, which has a knock-on effect on productivity.

Improving experience through wellbeing programmes

iamYiam has managed to reduce absenteeism in the companies with which it works by between one and two days per person a year. But presenteeism, where people turn up but aren’t engaged with their work, is a bigger drag on businesses’ bottom lines. Here iamYiam claims to improve presenteeism by between ten and twenty days a year.

“Productivity is that elusive term everyone talks about, but no one can grasp,” says Puica. But iamYiam’s analysis of key performance indicators in a company, and suggestions on how to improve it, can increase productivity by 10 per cent in professional services firms and by between 5 and 7 per cent in retail.

The twinned roles of AI and employee engagement are known by many people. Bupa, the private healthcare provider, uses AI to monitor health and wellbeing among its employees worldwide, with a tool developed by Glint, a Silicon Valley startup.

“In the past, you had to employ data scientists to understand what’s going on in your organisation,” says Nigel Sullivan, chief people officer at Bupa. “You try and pull out the drivers of engagement. They are things specific to your organisation that might have a disproportionate effect on engagement. It might be communication or the prospects of the firm. It’ll be different depending on the circumstances.” But AI enables Bupa to get to the heart of what’s troubling employees and offers suggestions how to fix it.

Personalised advice depends on employee experience

“It’s like skittles: you hit one and get the whole shebang,” says Sullivan. “Your bang for your buck is a lot better if you can find out what the drivers are. AI helps you get that.” Bupa uses natural language processing to filter through free text responses, in eight languages worldwide, to its survey of 83,000 workers and pinpoint what are each of their concerns. Three quarters of Bupa’s employees completed the most recent survey, conducted in late-November, providing 68,500 comments.

What’s important to people working in our hospitals in Spain, or insurance companies in Hong Kong? What do they think?

“We can really analyse that and find out what it is people are thinking about and what’s on their mind,” says Sullivan. “What’s important to people working in our hospitals in Spain or insurance companies in Hong Kong? What do they think?” Glint enables Bupa’s team managers to identify the drivers of employee engagement and provides advice on how to maintain or improve them.

Using AI and employee engagement through bots

Other companies rely on bots to communicate with workers and collate their responses. Moneypenny, which manages call centres and live chat environments for 21,000 clients in the UK and United States, has rolled out the use of bots on Workplace from Facebook to keep in touch with workers, identify their issues and communicate changes.

“For our people, it helped that true human interaction continued as we embraced this new normal, recreating those water-cooler moments, which are the lifeline for a people-focused business like ours,” says Joanna Swash, Moneypenny’s chief executive. “We have used it proactively to distribute positive and uplifting news and messages.

“We try to not impose too many top-down initiatives, but use Workplace as a tool to get feedback and ask questions about how the management teams can better support frontline staff.”

And this is the concern, that the shift to AI and employee engagement could backfire as already stressed workers begin to worry about support turning into surveillance. Some have expressed concerns with the rollout of what detractors say is “employee surveillance” software.

Improving engagement while maintaining trust

Demand for such tools is up 51 per cent since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, according to data compiled by Top10VPN. Search traffic for “employee monitoring software” has risen 65 per cent between March and September, while searches for “work-from-home monitoring tools” are 2,000 per cent higher than they were pre-pandemic.

When you have something that changes so fast, the challenge is you’re not catching downsides or mistakes fast enough

Some companies, struggling to keep tabs on their employees and worrying about a decline in productivity as the pandemic bites, are changing their approach to using AI and employee engagement from one that benefits employees to benefiting bosses.

It’s being exacerbated by the unprecedented situation in which we find ourselves during the pandemic and the sheer newness of the technology. “The speed of change in this space is truly unprecedented,” says Puica at iamYiam. “When you have something that changes so fast, the challenge is you’re not catching downsides or mistakes fast enough.”

Caution is required and clear thinking about why you’re rolling out the use of AI. Employees may be discomfited by the immense changes going on in their workplace and need reassurance and stability. “We need to create a value set that drives policies,” says Puica, before we jump into the unknown.