How artificial intelligence is making HR more human

HR teams are already using AI-based tech to communicate better with employees, improve career mobility inside their organisations and make well-timed authentic acknowledgements of people’s contributions
An employee and an HR representative having a private, personal conversation

How many HR managers acknowledged Artificial Intelligence Appreciation Day on 16 July? It probably passed unnoticed by most, considering the ever-growing list of tasks demanding the profession’s attention.

Even if they did have a minute to look up from their work and appreciate the power of this fast-developing technology, is there any reason to celebrate something that’s likely to put millions of people out of a job? 

‘Yes’ should be the answer to that question. AI’s ability to automate certain tasks and reduce administrative workloads promises to make the HR practitioner’s role more human. Embracing AI should free professionals in this space to devote more time and energy to identifying talent and nurturing it, which is why most people enter the field in the first place. And, with more and better information at its fingertips, the function could play a more holistic and strategically important role.

But have HR teams become too overloaded with extra work to take this great opportunity? 

How HR’s role has expanded

During the Covid crisis, HR teams were “mostly in survival mode”, says Dr Aaron Taylor, head of Arden University’s School of Human Resource Management. “As well as figuring out how employees could work from home, they needed to provide extra support for their mental and physical wellbeing while adhering to health guidelines.”

Progressive organisations will start to broaden how they use generative AI and it will benefit both employees and HR teams

He points out that, thanks to shifting workforce trends, many HR leaders were involved in C-level decisions to keep companies functioning, as well as to handle restructuring operations and redundancy programmes. 

“The profession’s evolution over the past 25 years – from ‘pay and rations’ to the strategic role it plays today – has, quite possibly, been more radical than that of any other business function,” Taylor argues.

Eric Mosley, co-founder and CEO of HR software firm Workhuman, agrees that HR has gone through “a very hectic, chaotic time. There’s been a complete whiplash, with trends veering from one direction to another.” 

Outlining the chaotic nature of the Covid era, Mosley points to remote working, back-to-office mandates, quiet quitting, loud quitting, the great resignation and, as economic uncertainty prevails, the so-called big stay.

AI’s part in the future of HR

Helen Poitevin is a distinguished vice-president and analyst focusing on HR tech at research giant Gartner. She says that “a debate is raging about the future of work between ‘explorers’, who embrace new tech and ways of working, and ‘restorers’, who believe companies should be using tried and tested methods. AI has emerged as one of the disruptive technologies at the heart of this conversation.”

Poitevin reports that AI is already playing a role in HR operations ranging from policy-making to recruitment. A global survey of HR leaders published by Gartner in July indicates that 5% have implemented generative AI, for instance, while 9% are piloting its use. 

“In the future, progressive organisations will start to broaden how they use generative AI. It will benefit both employees and HR teams,” she predicts. “A quarter of HR leaders are planning to use it to create hyper-personalised career development plans, for instance.”

Poitevin adds that HR professionals can, when equipped with the right tech, “better understand employees and so provide more human advice” that’s better tailored to each person’s needs. 

Taylor agrees that the profession has been placing greater emphasis on understanding employees as people. “There is much more importance on the ‘human’ aspects of HR now, especially when looking at employee experience,” he says. “This is no longer solely about ensuring regulatory compliance. This is about going that extra mile to know what makes employees tick and how that aligns with the company’s overall strategy.”

Skills development and career progression

While it’s never exactly been strong, the quality of communications between HR and the shop floor has worsened in recent years. New research by data science consultancy Profusion indicates that only 24% of employees are “fully comfortable” discussing workplace problems with the HR team, for example. 

Profusion’s CEO, Natalie Cramp, notes that the pandemic-induced shift towards remote working has “severely hampered the relationship between workers and their HR representatives, eroding any sense of trust and understanding”. 

This is about going that extra mile to know what makes employees tick and how that aligns with the company’s overall strategy

A study published in May by Microsoft, which has invested heavily in generative AI, argues that HR practitioners who understand the technology and use it well will become better communicators with the power to improve the employee experience. 

“Human-AI collaboration will be the next transformational work pattern,” the research report predicts, proposing the notion of using AI as a “co-pilot”

How would such co-piloting work in practice? Take the use of so-called writer’s block AI to improve communications between HR and the workforce, for instance. This technology uses relevant information about the company and its employees to personalise messages and deliver these in the appropriate tone.

An HR team can work alongside AI to map out possible career paths for people in the organisation. For instance, the technology might spot hidden potential in an employee who’s been flying under the radar and prompt the team to alert that individual to an appealing internal role that would suit their talents and offer them a valuable development opportunity.

AI can enable better employee recognition

AI can also aid employee recognition – a wellbeing-boosting intervention that can be as simple as thanking someone publicly, yet is lacking in many workplaces. LinkedIn has reported achieving a 96% retention rate among employees whose work was acknowledged at least four times a year. With the prompting of AI, HR teams can recognise and celebrate the contributions (or life events) of employees or ask their line managers to do so.

“Recognition is an authentic, honest moment, where someone expresses genuine gratitude for another’s work,” Mosley says. “That connection can build relationships and community.” 

He stresses that recognition has the greatest impact when it is “fulfilled, authentic, embedded in the culture, individualised and equitable”. Again, AI tools can help HR practitioners with all of this, enabling them to convey heartfelt messages of encouragement when it matters to the recipients.

Research by Workhuman suggests that giving recognition is mutually beneficial. Managers who have done so in the past two months are more likely than those who haven’t to love their jobs (75% versus 48%) and identify as highly engaged (89% versus 64%).

Building on this last data point, Gallup’s most recent State of the Global Workplace report pegged employee engagement at about 23% last year. Given that this was the highest recorded percentage since the company started gathering such data in 2009, there is clearly significant room for improvement

Now, thanks to AI, HR teams have no excuse not to be more human in the digital era, recognise the good work of others and gain job satisfaction in the process.