Artificial intelligence (AI) and automation — while exciting, innovative and efficient — are disrupting the workplace and causing some discomfort for today’s workforce. These emerging technologies promise to streamline and eliminate mundane, repetitive tasks, which has left many workers with a sense of anxiety regarding job security.
When this technology arrived on the scene, headlines announced that humans were out, and robots were in. Today, however, there is a wider understanding that AI and automation will eliminate some positions while also creating new roles. Moreover, these tools are intended to augment human capabilities.
However, these technologies cannot fulfill their promise to augment and enhance your workforce if your employees are paralyzed by fear and anxiety on the job, unable to shake the feeling that just around the corner, a robot eagerly awaits its moment to upend their careers. Organizations must have the company culture to support employees as they implement these disruptive technologies.
Company culture is “the way people get out of bed in the morning. It’s how motivated [employees] feel to do their job well. It’s the connections between individuals. It’s how [employees] choose to integrate after work,” according to Collin D. Ellis, a culture change expert and the author of “Culture Fix: How to Create a Great Place to Work.”
Alexander Genov, head of customer research at Zappos.com, says, “Culture is not a set of statements that are printed on posters; [it is] the relationships people build and how they feel.” In order to embrace these new technologies and support their workforce, organizations must cultivate a culture that encourages and supports honesty, open communication and genuine human connection, as the Zappos Insights and Zappos.com teams set out to do. Let’s explore a few of the integral qualities and behaviors organizational cultures should exhibit in this era of advanced technological advancement.
Communicate With Your People
One major contributor to employees’ anxieties regarding automation and AI is a lack of communication from their organization and its executives. It is common, according to Larry Boyer, president of Success Rockets, LLC, for people to feel “concerned if there’s not a lot of open discussion about the introduction of automation tools and how [they’re] really designed to help everybody do their work better rather than cut people. Being transparent about that is important.”
Ellis echoes Boyer’s sentiment, stating, “We don’t prepare people well enough for the integration of AI or machine learning … There’s a bit of a smoke screen. We don’t really talk about the fact that we’re going to be using machines to do this, and this is why.”
Open communication must be embedded into an organization’s culture. For example, Zappos’ company culture places an emphasis on communication, exemplified in one of its core values, “Build open and honest relationships with communication.” This type of communication empowers employees and executives across all levels of the organization to keep an open dialogue about their needs and concerns without fear of retaliation or retribution. Zappos Insights believes, “Communication is always one of the weakest spots in any organization, no matter how good the communication is. We want everyone to always try to go the extra mile in encouraging thorough, complete, and effective communication.”
“What organizations have to do is get people ready for the fact that AI will replace some work, and they have to do that as early as possible to remove the suspicion and the negativity that people may feel towards it,” shares Ellis. Communication can be tricky, but organizations can mitigate the fear and worry that accompany change in the workplace by intentionally and honestly communicating with employees, as Zappos Insights and culture experts recommend.
Boyer says it’s important that organizations “understand that people are both excited to use it and fearful of it, and they need to hear frequent communication about how AI and other automation processes will positively impact their life and some recognition that [they] will change how some people have to work.” These technologies have exciting potential, and your workforce — although wary — likely feels this excitement as well. However, if your organization fails to communicate effectively, your employees will resent this technology rather than embrace it.
Listen to Your People
In addition to communicating change, organizations must demonstrate a willingness to listen to their people. If your organization is setting out to build a company culture that supports its workforce and the constant change presented to it, it’s important to involve employees in its creation. “Organizations have got to listen more, they’ve got to act more, and they have to understand that cultures are the sum of everybody within the organization — they don’t belong to a special group of people [sitting] in a special board room. They belong to everybody,” says Ellis.
In 2006, Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh sent out a company-wide email asking employees across all levels of the organization to respond with the values they wanted to see demonstrated in the workplace, writes Trish Christofferson, a writer and editor for Zappos. In this way, Zappos’ core values were born, informed by diverse perspectives throughout the company.
By emphasizing the importance of listening and mutual understanding in your company culture, you can ensure that your employees will be better prepared to listen to and collaborate with others, as well as to work with new technology. Ameen Kazerouni, lead of machine learning and artificial intelligence research at Zappos, states, “AI is such [a] complex mathematical concept that is so difficult to get across that you require a strong ability to communicate with people in different areas of expertise, because you are trying to create augmentations and efficiencies in somebody else’s domain.” Effectively creating these augmentations across domains requires employees to communicate and connect with each other.
Connect and Adapt with Your People
In response to rapid technological advancement, some companies have placed a heavier emphasis on “hard,” technical skills. While technical skills gaps do present major challenges, companies must not forget the importance of closing soft skills gaps in order to connect with people inside and outside of their organizations. “For too long,” says Ellis, “we downplayed the importance of emotional intelligence in our workplaces.”
Soft skills enable your employees to adapt alongside the technologies they encounter. “There has to be an adaptiveness to the environment, and everything that’s happening,” says Boyer. “Adaptiveness is not about learning a new hard skill. It’s about an emotional connection, direction and vision, so you know where you’re going.”
Change is constant, especially in our rapidly evolving business landscape. Technologies like AI and automation only increase this rapid evolution. In order to embrace the changing landscape and the exciting technologies that accompany it, organizations must embrace an organizational culture that supports open dialogue and empathy to provide their workforce with a sense of security. When it comes to hard and soft skills, “the emphasis should be on a balance,” according to Genov.
Listening to, communicating and connecting with the people in your organization will enable your workforce to translate those qualities to their interactions with customers, clients and stakeholders outside of the organization. As Kazerouni says, “That culture expands in both directions, outwards and inwards, and it allows everyone to bring their authentic selves to work.” For insights and resources surrounding developing and maintaining a strong organizational culture in this era of disruptive technology, visit Zappos Insights.