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Human-Centric Intelligence

With AI poised to reshape the workforce, here’s how HR leaders can address some of its biggest challenges.

By Maggie Mancini

Nearly two years after ChatGPT was released to the public, artificial intelligence (AI) remains a major influence on the world of HR. From helping augment the talent acquisition process to taking the reins of data analytics, AI has the potential to reshape the global workforce. At the same time, the AI revolution has not been without its challenges. With many employees concerned about the risk of job displacement due to automation, HR leaders are tasked with preparing their organizations for the next phase of technological change. Further, leaders must continually monitor and remove biases in AI and machine learning algorithms to ensure that AI can be a force for good.  

Reskilling for Retention 

A prominent fear associated with the rapid implementation of AI technology in the workplace is the potential for job displacement. With research indicating that as many as one quarter of jobs could be replaced with AI within the next few years, HR leaders must balance business demands with the concerns of their employees—particularly among knowledge workers 

One of the big ways for HR leaders to improve trust among employees is by listening and acting on feedback from the workforce, says Jesse Harriott, executive director of Workhuman iQ, adding that it’s critically important to make sure leaders hear what employees are thinking and work to fully understand their concerns.  

For employees anxious about diminished earning potential or being replaced by AI, upskilling and reskilling opportunities can help them remain competitive in the talent marketplace, while AI ethics trainings and company-wide adoption of the technology can help support the transition while identifying places where AI can augment daily tasks.  

During a discussion on reskilling in the age of AI during Workhuman Live 2024, Raffaella Sadun, professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, explains that every time there’s a technological evolution, there’s a change in productivity that leads to changes in the demand for certain skills and the creation of new occupations. In that way, she explains, reskilling is one possible answer to the question of job displacement due to AI.  

While AI is already substituting tasks, including cognitive ones, AI-related skills are increasingly sought after, new roles have emerged, and employees who are able to take new, data-driven approaches to decision-making within organizational structures will be more valuable in the workforce, she says.  

To address the disruptions in the global workforce, organizations are increasingly investing in reskilling programs to help retain workers as the demand for skills continues to advance at a rapid pace. Sadun’s research with the Data Digital Design Institute at Harvard’s Digital Reskilling Lab identifies five paradigm shifts that are emerging in reskilling.  

  • Reskilling is a strategic imperative. While reskilling has traditionally been used to help avoid layoffs, the combination of rapid AI implementation and an aging workforce has made reskilling a strategic priority for organizations looking to remain competitive and stay ahead of the demand for skills, Sadun explains.  
  • It is the responsibility of every leader and manager. Though reskilling is typically understood as an HR responsibility, senior leaders and managers are increasingly spearheading reskilling initiatives and identifying critical skills needed for operational success.  
  • Reskilling is a change management initiative. Rather than focusing exclusively on training employees, reskilling initiatives require leaders to take an inventory of their organization’s critical skills, identify employees who may be best suited for reskilling, provide on-the-job training whenever possible, and then reintegrate them within the company, according to Sadun’s research.  
  • Employees want to reskill—when it makes sense. The research finds that, for many leaders, convincing employees to opt in to reskilling is a major challenge. Yet, as employees grapple with concerns about job displacement due to AI, they are more open to reskilling. By designing reskilling programs to suit employee needs, workers are more likely to participate.  
  • It takes a village. Rather than focusing entirely on internal talent development when building a reskilling program, organizations can utilize the surrounding community and its resources—including local universities and nonprofit organizations—to support reskilling efforts.  

By prioritizing the upskilling and reskilling of employees, listening to their feedback about AI, and bringing the workforce along for each step of the company’s AI integration, HR leaders can address concerns and help bring the organization into the future.   

Addressing Unconscious Bias 

The growing use of AI in the workplace also has people questioning the extent to which human bias has influenced the development of machine algorithms. While AI has the potential to reduce the impacts of biased human decision-making, the design and development of AI algorithms can also perpetuate unconscious biases that, if left unchecked, could have far-reaching implications for employees, leaders, and organizations.  

While some organizations may seek to identify and eliminate all forms of bias within their AI algorithms, it may not be that easy. For example, Google’s rollout of its Gemini AI tool was halted after users reported that the program was generating inaccurate historical images. The company paused the program’s ability to generate images after receiving backlash, stating that the algorithm was trained to include diversity in its results but that it was “missing the mark” in its depiction of historical images.  

“Bias is going to be in every AI system, so it’s important that you address it from multiple angles,” Harriott says. “The first way you address it is by addressing what data is feeding that system. If you’re training your models based on everything that’s on the internet, we all know some of the horrific things on the internet. And when we’re starting with that human connection data, there’s certainly still bias in there that needs to be removed systematically through monitoring the models and making sure we’re measuring how recognition is being received equitably.”  

Harriott explains that Workhuman iQ created the “Inclusion Advisor,” which provides in-the-moment bias detection. As users are typing a recognition message, there is an AI-trained model that will check the writing and ensure that the user is not saying something unintentionally offensive or condescending. 

With humans included as part of the process, Harriott says, the goal should be to remove the bias from the human interactions that build the AI algorithm and ultimately make those models better, rather than relying on fake, created data, or data randomly scraped from the internet. Humans are vital to the successful integration of AI technology in the workplace, and understanding where biased algorithms originate is important in reducing their impact on organizations.  

As automation technology continues to gain steam among organizations in the U.S. and abroad, it’s clear that AI is here to stay. Though the technology will likely cause a shift in productivity and the way people work, freeing up time for employees to focus on strategic tasks, it may also displace jobs that were historically understood as future-proof. And even as AI has the potential to reduce biased decision-making in the workplace, it can preserve and perpetuate unconscious biases if not deployed responsibly.  

By incorporating human decision-makers, critical thinkers, and innovators, organizations can help reduce the impact of the challenges brought by AI.  

Examining Employee Fulfillment

A chief people officer recommends a different approach to measuring and understanding productivity and engagement 

By Maggie Mancini

It’s no secret that employee engagement is declining. Research from Gallup reveals that engagement among U.S. employees hit an 11-year low in early 2024, highlighting concerns about the impact that disengagement can have on performance outcomes like productivity, retention, quality of service, and profitability. Further, a recent poll from the American Staffing Association finds that 43% of U.S. workers are burned out at their job, underscoring the need for HR leaders to understand and address engagement within their organization.  

When it comes to measuring engagement, it’s nearly always about whether the company is doing enough to “get enough” from workers—a mindset that tends to be transactional on both sides, says Mindi Cox, chief people officer at O.C. Tanner. While organizations often look at engagement to measure an employee’s productivity or intent to stay with the company, the reason why people choose to volunteer their time and effort for a company’s purpose almost always comes down to how fulfilled they find their relationship with their employer and with their work, she says.  

“Do they feel connected to their work and to their peers in a meaningful way? Above productivity, employees care about finding a role that grants them autonomy, mastery, and connection,” Cox says. “Higher engagement is a result of people feeling more fulfilled. I invite leaders to reframe their view of engagement and consider the actions that lead to greater fulfillment as the input, and long-term engagement and the other goodness that comes with it as the outcome.”  

Employee fulfillment is easier to measure than employee engagement, Cox says, adding that experts have identified four areas of psychological needs related to fulfillment:  

  • sense of connection;  
  • purpose;  
  • mastery; and  
  • flexibility. 

When HR leaders find that engagement is lacking, she says, it’s nearly always connected to a lack of fulfillment in one of those key areas.  

“To measure fulfillment, HR leaders must think of their organizations more holistically to determine if there are opportunities for employees to feel more deeply connected to their work,” Cox says. “Considering their company culture, leaders can determine if they are creating a safe space for employees to bring their unique interests and passions to work and if they have the autonomy to approach their jobs in different ways.”  

O.C. Tanner’s 2023 Global Culture Report finds that unfulfilled employees are 340% more likely to leave the organization in one year or less. In contrast, those who feel fulfilled are 90% more likely to stay for another year, underscoring the positive and negative impacts of fulfillment on an organization’s retention rate. Cox explains that fulfilled employees who are connected to their work and to the organization’s mission are not just more likely to stay, but also more likely (297%) to promote their organization and attract new talent.  

Recognition Boosts Fulfillment 

To maximize employee fulfillment, Cox says that it’s important to support employees in those four key areas. Beyond raises and promotions—which are not always available—HR leaders should consider providing mentorship opportunities or special projects for employees to help build their sense of mastery, she says. To build on connection, for example, leaders can take time to gather, recognize individual and team accomplishments, and share how employee contributions directly impact the success of the business.  

“What’s most important to keep in mind is that employees are different, so fulfillment strategies should be different as well,” Cox says. “A one-size-fits-all approach won’t cut it, and organizational leaders must take the time and energy to find what strategies work best for their unique employees.”  

Another key part of an effective retention strategy is employee recognition, Cox says. When organizations take time to celebrate together, employees are 20 times more likely to feel connected and want to stay with their company. The key, she explains, is to integrate recognition into daily work life and celebrate everything from small wins, like proposing a great idea, to big wins, like major work milestones.  

“Like fulfillment strategies, recognition is also most effective when it’s personalized to each employee,” says Cox. “Invest the time to find what motivates and excites them, then find ways to celebrate their accomplishments that will resonate with them. The most important aspect of recognition is to make sure it always connects employees to their purpose, their accomplishments, and to one another.”  

Impact of Recent Labor Trends 

The lingering effects of the pandemic—and the labor trends that have emerged as a result—have had a significant impact on employee engagement and the way people show up for work. Trends like quiet quitting, for example, are rooted in a lack of fulfillment in the workplace, Cox says.  

“We saw a rise in these types of trends post-pandemic, a time when employees’ views of their personal and professional lives experienced a marked shift,” she says. “More employees were looking for flexible or even fully remote work environments in part because of the autonomy it provided and the deeper connection they felt to more areas of their lives. However, as this demand rose, employers implemented return-to-office mandates.”  

For employees in industries like healthcare—where the in-person element of the job is essential—people know their site-dependent work cannot change, but many have sought out more flexible work arrangements, Cox says. When these needs aren’t met, the tension between employees and employers causes employees to disconnect, disengage, and look elsewhere for a company that prioritizes flexible work conditions. This expectation is the new normal for every person in every position, Cox says.  

Other trends, like “grind culture,” focus on celebrating and over-recognizing those who work long hours, weekends, or forgo balance in favor of overworking. Cox says that this mindset has directly contributed to high burnout and engagement levels. She suggests that leaders focus their employee recognition on outcomes and not extreme lifestyle sacrifices, modeling behavior that fosters a positive work-life balance.  

This, she says, helps build a culture where employees know that their personal lives matter and they have the autonomy to get their work done in a way that meets business needs without sacrificing their personal lives.  

“Creating a positive environment, a workplace that is a haven for people to come and give their best, requires intentional practices, systems, and awareness,” Cox says. “If we put care and empathy at the core of creative solutions that meet our people’s inherent need to feel mastery, connection, and autonomy, we will see that business outcomes always follow from inspired and fulfilled contributors.”  

Getting the Most Out of #WorkTok

As Gen Z brings workplace woes to social media, HR leaders can leverage internet trends to improve retention and engagement among the younger members of the workforce. 

By Maggie Mancini

Gen Z, like each generation that preceded them, is continuing to challenge the status quo and leave their mark on the world of work. On #WorkTok, younger members of the workforce are taking over content feeds to voice their dissatisfaction at work and desire to balance their mental health with the demands of the corporate world. These users speak openly—and often jokingly—about the impacts of burnout, excessive workloads, and lack of communication from managers. Among the most viral of these work-related trends is #QuitTok, where employees film themselves in the moments before, during, and after quitting their jobs or being laid off.  

These workers often reflect on their experiences in the workforce and the disconnect between their expectations and the reality of their industry within a tight job market, airing their grievances for the world to see. And with millions of people tuning in, it’s up to HR to address these underlying concerns and cultivate a better workplace experience for everyone.   

One of the most effective ways to get ahead of becoming the next organization at the center of #QuitTok is to proactively seek out the reasons why employees are thinking about leaving, and then devise ways to improve, says Hannah Yardley, chief human resources officer at AchieversShe explains that the company’s 2024 Engagement and Retention report finds that the top three reasons employees leave a company—compensation, career progression, and work flexibility—haven’t changed in several years.  

“While some of those factors are not quick fixes, let’s say compensation, HR leaders should explore alternatives to improve the others and keep employees engaged and happy,” Yardley says. “It can be something as simple as connecting employees with a mentor to supplement their professional growth, offering additional options for flexibility, or increasing social recognition.”  

As these #WorkTok trends go viral on social media, it’s important for HR leaders to better understand them to help address their own organization’s talent attraction, engagement, and retention, particularly as 41% of employees are planning to look for new jobs this year.  

“The best way to learn from trends like #QuitTok is to evaluate them head-on and think about how your organization is helping or hurting itself when talking about employee experience,” Yardley says. “HR leaders can keep a pulse on the most common job-hunting motivators by utilizing social listening and looking at TikTok comment sections to see where conversations are going, then reflecting on whether they are meeting employees’ needs or if they could be doing better.”  

Yardley adds that, for many, #QuitTok is breaking the stigma associated with quitting and getting rid of some of the unknown that comes with it—and that’s a good thing. At the same time, social media trends offer a chance for HR leaders to reflect on the employee experiences they’ve cultivating and discover potential ways to improve their company while boosting talent retention.  

The Rise of the “Cool” Millennial Manager 

As the workforce prepares for the mass retirement of baby boomers, younger workers are moving through the ranks and entering leadership positions. In some cases, millennials are using their newfound leadership roles to change the way managers are perceived by their direct reports.  

Enter the “cool” millennial manager. These tech-savvy leaders are often categorized as calm, lenient, and deeply opposed to micromanaging. They don’t need to hear why employees are taking time away from work or blocking out time on their calendars. They understand the importance of taking breaks to eat, walk the dog, or go to a quick doctor’s appointment.  

For the millions of social media users engaging with #WorkTok, these are important distinctions, particularly as Gen Z and millennials are poised to make up 75% of the global workforce by 2030. 

Yardley says that historically, it has been seen as taboo to get too personal at work or express workload concerns with colleagues and managers. For Gen Z and millennials, those rules simply don’t work, she explains. Rather, younger members of the workforce are seeking work-life balance and aren’t afraid to refuse opportunities that don’t provide them with the flexibility they crave.  

Further, she says, younger generations are much more likely to want to have tough conversations on issues outside of work in the workplace, and people management has become more holistic as a result. Still, these younger generations are 31% more likely to say they don’t feel safe doing so.  

Yardley suggests that businesses take this as a sign to improve their people management training and ensure that managers can navigate tough conversations and lead with empathy—especially since one in four managers have had sufficient training on the topic, she adds.  

“For the millennials managers trying to do this, their efforts don’t go unnoticed, as Gen Z is more likely to say their managers have a lot of empathy, but they need to be refined considering one in four still wouldn’t recommend their manager to others,” Yardley says. “By upskilling managers, organizations build a happier, more engaged, and committed workforce.”  

For millennials stepping into management roles, honing leadership skills is critical to becoming more effective leaders. Yardley says that, while developing strong management skills is no easy feat, millennials trying to improve everything all at once can often be a wasted effort. Research finds that employees’ top factors for an effective manager are recognition, contact, coaching, and professional development. Even managers who excel in just one of these areas are twice as likely to be rated as effective.  

Achievers’ Workforce Institute research reveals the key formula for effective one-on-one meetings, and it comes down to four topics that should be addressed at every meeting:  

  • recognition; 
  • well-being checks; 
  • coaching; and  
  • discussions on professional development.  

“Working on regular contact is an easy place to start, it just requires some adjustments for how managers run their one-on-one meetings,” Yardley says. “So, for stressed out millennial managers trying their best, HR can help by arming them with a scientifically proven formula to improve communication with their direct reports.”  

While Yardley anticipates that some organizations will pull back on transparency out of fear of social media trends, her biggest takeaway for HR leaders is to listen and act. The real winners, she says, will be the organizations taking advantage of these trends to hear employee concerns and lean into their transparency efforts to help build trust with employees.  

Industry Insights

From our Flash Report, 2023 CHRO Compensation Report

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