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Can AI Nudging Help Keep Workers on Track?

September 23, 2022 Digital Workplace
Kaya Ismail
By Kaya Ismail

Artificial intelligence has quickly become vital in the enterprise world — with good reasons. From predicting patterns in consumer demand and analyzing massive amounts of data in real time to automating processes and reducing menial tasks and labor needs, AI is a game-changer across industries.

There are many use cases of AI in the digital workplace, from large-scale automation at manufacturing companies to smaller-scale deployments in training new employees, for instance, but one feature of AI that has been raising eyebrows — and sparking debate — is its ability to track and monitor employees.

Employee surveillance, as some call it, can give the impression of spying on workers. It's difficult to argue the ethicality of logging keystrokes and mouse movements or snapping webcam pictures at steady intervals, especially without telling the employee beforehand. But some employers have come up with a new way to utilize AI to optimize their workers' productivity: algorithmic nudging or management.

While experts say there are ethical ways to influence (or course-correct) employee behavior through the use of AI, the most important question might be, should you?

The Business of Nudging

The general idea behind the use of artificial intelligence to monitor employees is to ensure optimal productivity. While this practice isn't new to remote work, it has become more popular since the pandemic, as employers sought new ways to confirm their workers were indeed clocking in and out as expected when not in plain sight.

And as privacy concerns rose, companies got more innovative in their practices. In her 2021 article for Harvard Business Review, Mareike Möhlmann, an assistant professor in the Information and Process Management department at Bentley University, wrote that companies can use algorithms to manage employees "not by force, but rather by nudging them into desirable behavior."

"In other words, learning from their personalized data and altering their choices in some subtle way," she wrote.

Among the examples she cites is Uber, which, she said, has used AI-driven algorithms to offer its autonomous drivers reward badges as a way to incentivize them to work longer hours "without forcing them to do so."

"For many companies, nudging workers is a promising approach to achieve their organizational goals through higher worker performance and/or cost savings," Möhlmann wrote.

In her advice to companies, the Bentley professor makes a point to highlight the importance of transparency and adequate safety, though, which have been raised as the most serious concerns associated with AI tracking software.

Related Article: How to Practice Ethical Employee Monitoring

Don't Ignore the Risks

Most of us are highly aware of the concerns surrounding AI-based tracking practices. Some privacy groups have complained that because of the massive amounts of data being collected, it's easy for organizations to go too far with this type of monitoring.

Others have pointed to the idea that employee surveillance might even breach personal security. For instance, if an employee during their lunch break accesses their online banking and the monitoring system collects the login details, where does the data get stored? Can it be used by the company in any way? And who's responsible in the event of fraud or breach?

Another factor to consider for employers is that it may reduce morale among the workforce. If employees perceive there is a lack of trust by their managers or higher-ups, their productivity and engagement level may be diminished. Just last year, a UK government review found that AI-based algorithmic tracking is damaging the mental health of workers and should, therefore, be regulated by law.

Related Article: Is Employee Monitoring Software Worth the Trouble?

4 Ways to Use AI Tracking in the Workplace

There are many considerations — with critical repercussions — for organizations seeking to use AI for this particular purpose. Those that choose to implement these practices can take a few steps to ensure they remain ethical throughout the process.

1. Consider the Whole Story

One of the critical problems with work-monitoring software is that the output is measured from a single computer. For some employees, work is not always conducted at the computer (think sales people who may spend considerable time on the phone) or from the same computer (think stock analysts who require several terminals). AI tracking software can be helpful in painting part of the picture, but it shouldn't be the sole source of data for assessing an employee's productivity.

2. Opting In

Using AI-based algorithms to "nudge" employees toward ways they can improve their productivity is a great strategy, as long as it is explained with full transparency. Providing support to a new employee, for instance, can transform their learning experience, but it is important that they know the AI system is there to help them, not monitor them.

"A nudge that arrives in someone's inbox without context or clarity of purpose will likely be viewed as annoying and irrelevant," said Joe Freed, head of product at Temecula, Calif.-based Perceptyx. Allowing employees to opt in to the AI program could be a great way to circumvent this potential issue.

3. Managing Workflows, not Workers

Another great use of AI in tracking productivity is to use the data to support project management systems. Employees often juggle many tasks, which can make them forget about an important deadline looming. AI can be used to issue reminders to help employees end and begin certain tasks if they haven't yet gotten around to it in their day. This requires the system to monitor the person's activity and what they're working on, but to ensure efficient time management rather than spying.

4. Incorporating Well-being and Work/Life Balance

AI monitoring can be used for good, not just for the business but also for workers. For instance, the system can remind employees to take regular breaks. "A nudge can be sent for a variety of reasons," said Jim Sullivan, CEO of Grafton, Mass.-based JCSI, who notes that in addition to reminding employees to respond or follow up to an email, the system can also send out alerts to take breaks. By using it in this manner, for their well-being, the company leaders not only demonstrate they care for employees' physical and mental health, but they also help reduce burnout, fatigue and illness.

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