Executive need to listen

COLUMN | July 20, 2022 | 5 min read

Working through divisions

AI tools can help leaders engage employees with empathy

By Cian Zoller, head of HR, Australia & New Zealand, ServiceNow

Over the past two years, Australians have lived through intermittent lockdowns, state-by-state COVID policy border restrictions, and a series of natural disasters. At work, concerns about the cost of living, rising interest rates, and fake news mean chatting with colleagues has never been more precarious. It’s no surprise that 61% of Aussies are incapable of having constructive and civil debates about issues they disagree on, according to Edelman’s Trust Barometer 2022 Australia report.

If political correctness defined the 2010s, indications suggest that we’re now entering an era of extreme polarisation. Or as leading AI expert Catriona Wallace coins it, a time of ‘issues diversity’. When managed effectively, these conflicting views can be expressed, listened to, and acknowledged, allowing the parties to bond and build stronger teams.

In new analysis commissioned by ServiceNow, Wallace identifies a range of post-pandemic attitudinal shifts across Australian society, and within workplaces specifically. Overall, she argues that we are becoming more physically, socially, and politically diverse.

“In the past, we figured out how to avoid conflict with teammates or management on issues seemingly unrelated to our core work,” Wallace says. “But times have changed and so have we. Australians have never been more divergent in their views and willing to back themselves—with family and friends, colleagues and bosses, employers and brands.”

That’s not to say we’re immune to the potential risks of standing up for our beliefs.

We are becoming more physically, socially, and politically diverse.

Almost half of Australians say they’re worried about what their friends, family, and colleagues may think of them if they express their political views on social media, according to the University of Canberra’s Digital News Report 2022.

The good news is that increased polarisation can actually enrich our workplaces. Organisations are increasingly taking strong stances on key societal issues, and companies with strong beliefs and robust environmental, social, and governance (ESG) programs are more likely to attract and retain top talent, enhance their reputation with investors and customers, and boost shareholder returns.

We might remain divided on issues like vaccinations, climate change, the pandemic, and technological change, but smart leaders are helping people figure out how to coexist in compassionate disagreement. Many of them are using digital transformation and AI technologies to promote fairness, inclusivity, and trust by using technology to verify information, surface relevant information when people need it, and embedding safeguards and automated compliance checks to ensure integrity and accuracy.

During the pandemic, health restrictions forced Victorians to endure more than 200 days of isolation, with work-from-home mandates putting immense pressure on public utilities, including Yarra Valley Water (YVW), the state’s largest water provider.

When a staged return to work was permitted, safety was top of mind for leaders. YVW needed to regulate the number of people working on its sites at any given time. To do this, managers needed accurate and up-to-date records of who was where and when. That’s not easy when you’re managing a workforce that engages in lots of on-site work with heavy machinery, often undertaken in remote locations at all times of the day and night.


of the Australian population rejects digital-only models

Adding to the complexity, YVW employee demographics ranged from veterans who had worked at one allocated desk for upwards of 20 years to newbies who’d been hired remotely during lockdown and had yet to meet their colleagues in person.

At the same time, only vaccinated Victorians were permitted to return to work during the first phase of reopening, raising community-wide concerns about the ethics of screening and privacy.

The digital transformation of YVW was a massive effort. It involved digitising the utility’s paper-based processes while consolidating 20 apps into a single platform. But that effort was nothing compared to the cultural shift necessary to maintain business continuity. Like most workplaces, YVW employees were grappling with various levels of fear, confusion, and anxiety about getting back onsite.

With the new system, workers could view available workspaces and reserve socially distanced spaces ahead of time with one tap. New hires had access to a wayfinding function to help them locate the desk they had booked.

The awkwardness of asking visitors to prove their vaccine status was removed with QR code sign-ins. YVW was able to protect its people by collating vaccination information while maintaining privacy. And contact tracing happened within minutes rather than hours or days.

As workplace polarity becomes the norm, differing preferences for fully digital or more organic ways of getting things done will become the norm, predicts Wallace. Organisations can’t simply force everyone to use digital channels, even if the pandemic spurred a giant leap in technology uptake and acceptance.

“Organisations will need to cater to both the digital and organic experiencers,” says Wallace, noting that up to 25% of the Australian population rejects digital-only models. “We know ourselves better and we expect our employers and brands to understand us better, too.”

New South Wales healthcare providers are using AI to deliver better patient experiences. A new system called OrbitaASSIST lets patients make verbal requests from their beds using smart speakers, rather than pressing call buttons. Information is converted into automated tasks and delivered to shared smartphones used by nurses, who can respond, prioritise, and escalate patient requests faster.

“Nurses can let patients know their request has been heard and help is on the way,” says Nick White, principal and co-creator of OrbitaASSIST and executive vice president, patient care solutions at Orbita. “Nurses also know exactly what a patient is asking for and can respond appropriately.”

Because nurses arrive at bedsides with full knowledge of what’s requested—and having received real-time data on critical information like vital signs and when medication was last administered—they can spend more time providing one-on-one, empathetic care to patients.

Disruption and uncertainty are today’s reality. Each new crisis has the potential to generate further division. Fostering a sense of inclusion will be essential, as the quality of work experiences will determine whether employees remain and thrive or vote with their feet and leave.

The goal is to maintain business performance in the face of environmental, political, social, cyber, and other disruptions. Clever organisations are already anticipating this and investing in resilience programs suited to this new world of work. They are implementing more diverse hiring strategies, automating manual processes, creating frictionless experiences, and inviting greater scrutiny of the metrics that matter.

The lesson is clear: Australian organisations must provide their employees with tools that help them respond and adapt to a rapidly changing world. When people are heard and empowered, they step up.


 The Secrets to Creating the Ultimate Workplace

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Evan Ramzipoor is a writer based in California.

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