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When Slack burst onto the workplace, employees rejoiced. Finally, there was a way to chat without having to send a dreaded email or worse, get up and actually go talk with your coworkers face-to-face. Thanks to Slack and a handful of other messaging platforms, business teams could easily communicate using a single interface that would allow them to also send files, GIFs, and more.

The role of chatbots

Workplace messaging platforms like chat typically come with artificial assistants, or chatbots. Think of the Slackbot or iPhone’s Siri or Amazon’s Echo. These pieces of software can chat with employees and are also used to assist companies with everyday tasks. Siri and Echo can relay the time, weather, and even order an Uber for someone on the go with a simple command and internet connectivity. These chatbots, of all shapes and sizes, utilize a process called deep learning, which mimics neurons in the neocortex and learns to recognize patterns in digital representations of sounds and other data.

Chatbots provide convenience, streamlining certain processes that would cost time and energy for human employees to execute. For example, chatbots can help companies train new employees by moving entire training sessions online. These artificial intelligence platforms can also deliver data-driven results in places like call centers, assisting customer service representatives as they solve problems for frustrated customers. Chatbots could even replace your human assistants in some situations — instead of asking the front desk to book your flights or appointments, your chatbot assistant could do that for you with a simple text command.

But when it comes to workplace culture and productivity, how much are these artificial intelligence platforms helping your company?


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Stumbling blocks

As with any new technology rollout, chatbots come with some initial problems that could hinder workplace productivity. Chatbots and artificial intelligence programs need to be able to understand the specific request a user asks, even if the request doesn’t come in the form of a question. Turing Tests have exposed a weakness in artificial intelligence, revealing how difficult it will be to build more natural-sounding chatbots and to train computers to interpret the written word. For example, a comprehensive chatbot assistant must be able to discern colloquial language, slang, and formal language, as well as separating out multi-step requests that could come in a single sentence.

If you implement a chatbot into your workplace, consider the following scenario. On the one hand, a chatbot could help you accelerate your research for a specific project, or even help you find documents hidden deep within your folders. But what happens to productivity when employees need to stop to clearly spell out an inquiry because the chatbot misunderstood the first time? Having to fix a chatbot’s mistake could actually set your workers back and waste their time. Similarly, using an HR chatbot to vet potential employees can be problematic, as a person’s resume consists of more than just their technical skills and experience. AI software would need to be able to understand an applicant’s soft skills and be able to make the connection between their work experience and a company’s HR handbook.

The good news for intelligent chatbots is that technology is advancing at a rapid pace, and bots are learning how to process the human language better with each passing day. And there seems to be a growing acceptance of chatbots and an increased understanding of the potential benefit they offer.

Convenience and productivity

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg built an AI assistant, just like Iron Man’s own assistant Jarvis, to control his home and manage his work projects at the same time. Zuckerberg and his team are also building an AI to answer questions directly on Facebook Messenger. When applied to Facebook Workplace, this could dramatically increase employee productivity. While most bots can only answer simple questions at the moment, the idea is to one day build a platform that can maximize a worker’s productivity by passing mundane tasks off to an artificial assistant.

Despite current hesitations about chatbots, large enterprise software companies are investing money into developing “smartbots” to process some employee tasks. What many developers anticipate is that businesses will use bots to replace slow, outdated websites that make it difficult for them to effectively communicate with their customers. In particular, chatbots and AI platforms provide businesses with an opportunity to link all aspects of their company in a single layer that can be managed by a bot. This means an employee can use text-based commands to tell a chatbot to update aspects of a company’s website, instead of having to code it themselves. It’s an opportunity to improve productivity that will run into a few setbacks initially but could have dramatic implications for how we conduct business in the future.

Bots versus humans

On the flip side, we have to ask how chatbots will impact workplace culture. The rise of machines inevitably brings up the question of human capital and whether certain jobs will become extinct once artificial intelligence and chatbots can assume those roles. Certainly, there is an economic benefit that comes with using chatbots. Businesses can save money and resources by “hiring” robots to replace humans who would require a salary, benefits, and more. As deep learning becomes more complex and machines are taught to think like the human brain, the case could be made that specific jobs, like the role of an assistant or data analyst, could go extinct. Productivity would likely also increase, as machines could process requests faster than people can, but this raises the question of what will happen to those who find themselves out of a job. And with fewer people working in offices and interacting with one another, it’s worth wondering what company culture will look like in the future.

At the end of the day, how a business chooses to implement new technologies will determine whether a chatbot improves or hinders workplace productivity. Without a doubt, businesses can benefit from a little extra help, and employees are free to focus on important issues when chatbots have taken over the most mundane tasks. Certainly, proper training and an improved deep learning software can streamline your office productivity. As for how bots will influence your culture? That remains to be seen.

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