[Human Interaction]: Sent From My Workspace

By: Robert T. Szyba, Ryan B. Schneider, and Katherine Mendez

 
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The reality of technology replacing human workers is nothing new. Just ask yesteryear’s switchboard operators, film projectionists, highway and bridge toll collectors, checkout cashiers, and many others. With these changes, human interaction in the workplace has changed. Three recent trends in today’s workplace, all of which favor the use of technology to perform human tasks and to simulate human behaviors, highlight how the workplace experience is changing for modern workers in terms of human interaction.

1. Open Workspaces

In July 2018, a study of the effect of open workspaces on human interaction revealed a decrease in face-to-face interaction and an associated increase in electronic communication. While open workspaces had been meant to stimulate collaboration and creativity, employees instead reported privacy concerns and focus issues.  (For more on the pros and cons of open offices, see our prior post.)

Notably, the study tracked not only face-to-face interaction, but also digital channels of interaction.  It suggested that “when office architecture makes everyone more observable or ‘transparent’, it can dampen [face-to-face] interaction, as employees find other strategies to preserve their privacy; for example . . . .  Rather than have a [face-to-face] interaction in front of a large audience of peers, an employee might look around, see that a particular person is at his or her desk, and send an email.”

The study noted a 70% decrease in the amount of face-to-face interaction after workplaces transitioned to open architecture, and a corresponding 20-50% increase in the amount of electronic communication. In one office, before the open office transition, employees averaged 5.8 hours of face-to-face interaction per day, while after the transition, employees averaged 1.7 hours of face-to-face interaction per day in equally measured time periods. In that same office, instant message activity increased by 67% and instant message word count increased by 75%, while the volume of emails sent increased by 56%. Although the substantive contents of both electronic and face-to-face communications were not recorded in the study, notably, management reported an overall decrease in productivity during the open office period, despite the increased electronic communications.

Thus, despite the overall intention of the open workspace to drive increased collaboration and creativity, early research suggests the effect may be a decrease in human interaction overall.

2. Electronic Intake of Employee Complaints

Employers’ use of artificial intelligence (“AI”) in human resources is on the rise.  For example, a web-based chatbot service called “Spot” was launched within the past year, which allows employees to file discrimination and harassment complaints without any human interaction involved (see our previous post).

Spot uses cognitive technology and natural language processing to engage the user with questions about the reported conduct. It “responds to what [employees] write and can ask meaningful follow-up questions.” The three main steps for an employee to file a complaint are: (1) interview with Spot; (2) view a private report; and (3) optional reporting. During the interview, Spot asks a series of questions, which the employee can answer or skip. A private report from the interview is emailed to the employee, who is given the option to edit the report.  As offered by Spot, “[d]elete the parts of your interview that you don’t want to share.” Spot then sends the edited report from its email server allowing the employee to remain anonymous. Afterwards, the employee can see whether the employer downloaded the report and, if not, the employee can delete the report after submitting. 

As an initial matter, this allows the employee to evade tough questions. It also deprives the employer of the opportunity to assess the employee’s credibility in person. Additionally, as we have previously noted, the interactions are digitalized and increases the amount of personal and corporate information that exists and is shared online. Indeed, Spot acknowledges that what employees tell it “may be sensitive.” But despite assurances that reports are deleted within 30 days from Spot’s server and that chats are deleted after reports are downloaded, Spot will “share your Spot interviews, reports, or other private data . . . [if] legally obligated to do so.”

Effectively, Spot has eliminated all human interaction from the initial reporting process. Whether eliminating the necessity to interact with another human removed a barrier to reporting discrimination and harassment in the workplace, or perhaps created a barrier due to the digital documentation is yet unclear.

3. Artificial Intelligence Used to Assess Employee Performance and Evaluate Job Candidates

As “putting less H in HR” continues to trend, companies have turned to AI to conduct first round employee interviews, help screen job applicants’ video interviews, provide measured insight on attrition risks and attributes of high performers, and discover advertising material allegedly successful in recruiting higher numbers from desired candidate pools. They have also used AI in assessing performance in an effort to generate unbiased employee performance reviews. 

Regarding AI in candidate selection, one company has candidates play a smart phone game designed to assess cognitive and emotional traits, asks top performers flagged by AI to record a video responding to questions about how they would handle occurrences on the job, and then has AI review candidate responses for content, response time, and emotional cues. AI then selects candidates for in-person interviews. This is thought to reduce costs and bias in the workplace, however it is at the expense of human interaction during the early interview stages and later during the performance evaluation of employees.

Employer Takeaway: Is the decrease of human interaction a problem?

On one hand, the digitalized workforce can result in more efficient processes, smarter decision making, and more autonomy, both in business and in our personal lives. On the other, it may be the case that face-to-face interaction and collaboration, where human minds work together to solve personal and professional issues in the workplace, more positively affects productivity in achieving a certain result.

With regard to today’s “manager” or employer, a recent Fortune article noted that “judgment of human behavior was once reserved for, well, humans. But increasingly, algorithms are the ones evaluating and drawing conclusions on our actions and even intentions.” While doubtlessly true as evidenced by the above, when looking at the pros and cons of technology’s role in the workforce, employers may consider how these changes impact productivity and morale, and whether they are attracting the types of candidates they desire.

 

Cassie Peterson