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AI can boost employee productivity, while souring workplace behavior

For all of its hyped benefits, could artificial intelligence bring a toxic atmosphere into the workplace? To some degree, the answer is ‘yes,’ says research firm Gartner.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is increasingly making its way into the workplace, with virtual personal assistants (VPAs) and other forms of chatbots now augmenting human performance in many organizations. The research firm predicts that, by 2021, 70 percent of organizations will assist their employees’ productivity by integrating AI in the workplace. In response, this development will prompt 10 percent of organizations to add a digital harassment policy to workplace regulation.

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Programmers work at the Maluuba Inc. office in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, on Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2015. Several leading Canadian researchers and professors have defected to U.S. tech companies such as Google. Already members of the country's AI community are trying to protect what they helped build. A startup called Maluuba, which makes technology that helps computers talk, is opening a research office in Montreal; the University of Toronto has opened a startup accelerator and this fall launched a program dedicated to AI research. Photographer: James MacDonald/Bloomberg

“Digital workplace leaders will proactively implement AI-based technologies such as virtual assistants or other NLP-based conversational agents and robots to support and augment employees’ tasks and productivity,” explains Helen Poitevin, senior research director at Gartner. “However, the AI agents must be properly monitored to prevent digital harassment and frustrating user experiences.”

According to Gartner’s research, past incidents have shown that poorly designed assistants cause frustration among employees. That can prompt bad behavior and abusive language toward the VPA.

“This can create a toxic work environment, as the bad habits will eventually leak into interactions with co-workers,” said Ms. Poitevin.

Recent experiments have also shown that people’s abusive behavior toward AI technologies can translate into how they treat the humans around them. Poitevin says organizations should consider this when establishing VPAs in the workplace and train the assistants to respond appropriately to aggressive language.

“They should also clearly state that AI-enabled conversational agents should be treated with respect, and give them a personality to fuel likability and respect. Finally, digital workplace leaders should allow employees to report observed cases of policy violation,” Poitevin stresses.

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