Should your Chief Remote Officer be a robot?

A balance between technology and a human-centric approach can ensure employees remain productive, connected and inspired.

February 19, 2021

In the summer of 2015, 300 students joined Georgia Tech's graduate-level online course on Artificial Intelligence (AI). The class was a popular one, with students actively engaging with online discussion boards for assignments, upcoming course content, links to resources and more.

Throughout the course, the students enjoyed the responsiveness of the professor and his team, particularly one stand-out teaching assistant named Jill Watson. Jill was one of nine teaching assistants who engaged regularly with the students, often offering insightful comments. The students loved her. 

Jill’s true identity? A robot.

It’s not just students who are benefitting from this burgeoning form of artificial intelligence. AI assistants like Jill are moving out of the classroom and into the boardroom, taking on broader organizational roles and playing a bigger role in workforce management as many companies explore hybrid-working models. 

Chief Remote Officers in demand

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a marked shift in appetite towards remote work. Pre-pandemic, most organizations offered their employees some level of remote work, but never at the scale we have experienced in the last twelve months. This massive workforce experiment has had at least one eye-opening result: many companies saw productivity remain the same or even improve through the pandemic. And employees enjoyed the lack of commute and increased flexibility. Organizational efficiency and individual choice mean that working from home (at least some of the time) is here to stay.

Companies are now more willing than ever to explore hybrid work, which allows employees to work dynamically across the home-office-virtual spectrum. Virtual interactions, digital workflows, dynamic physical workplaces and a highly competitive talent marketplace will combine to stretch traditional human capital, technology and real estate roles. This has prompted many to rethink how they will manage the remote workforce of the future.

It’s not surprising that the hottest new job during the pandemic has been head of remote work. Okta, Quora, Twitter, GitLab, GitHub and others are hiring or have hired heads of remote work. Okta's new head of dynamic work is leading the shift to a distributed, dynamic and location-agnostic workforce as 60% of the company’s new hires live nowhere near its offices and nearly 85% of its workforce could eventually be fully remote.

A distributed workforce requires cross-functional support

Even fully remote companies such as GitLab have hired heads of remote work. GitLab's head of remote work is part relocation expert – part executive coach – part tech advisor and much more. This role often involves long-range planning, strategy and implementation. One global social media company is looking for its director of remote work to lead their push toward remote-first ways of working, with 50% of its employees expected to work remotely within the next decade.

But not everyone is convinced. Some companies are opting for cross-functional teams rather than a chief of remote work. Tech giant Hewlett-Packard Enterprise, for example, has consolidated expertise across HR, IT, real estate, communications and knowledge management to support the workforce of the future.

A large remote workforce creates unique challenges that historic models cannot address. To ensure productivity, organizations will need to manage simultaneous dynamic features across people, place and tech. For employees, the ability to access information, engage with colleagues and use seamless technology will be critical. The move to hybrid working is therefore a quantum-leap in complexity – a multitude of work environments, a variety of tools and platforms and a highly dynamic workforce.

AI assistants may be one way to simplify the complexities inherent in these endeavors.

Is AI the linchpin to success?

AI technology has been promising to shepherd in a new era of workforce management for the last few years, and much of it is already at play in our lives outside of work. Navigation apps recommend the most efficient route to a destination and online stores proactively suggest products based on our past purchases. Could AI systems, such as these, help transform how we enable the workforce of the future? In fact, machine intelligence already supports how we look for candidates, get the most out of workers and keep our best workers on the job.

AI applied to the workplace can help companies create hyper-personalized experiences for employees by providing suggestions based on past interactions with colleagues, personal preferences and common collaboration patterns. Ultimately, these platforms could enhance experience for the employee and efficiency for the organization.

One example of this is JLL's Jet, which simplifies employee experience and eases the transition to the hybrid workplace. The app allows employees to plan their day, book space based on need, interact with colleagues, IT, HR and more through one single platform.

These AI-enabled tools will usher in a golden era of human-machine collaboration. With a plethora of new systems, tools, technologies and platforms, those in charge of managing the remote workforce are sure to have their hands full. An effective AI strategy will be the key to the success for the chief remote officer.

Human empathy + machine intelligence will reimagine the future

In a digital-first world, companies must differentiate through superior employee experience. Autodesk is one such company that hopes to create a Netflix-like, hyper-personalized experience for its workforce. Its company pages will become highly experiential, combined with AI-based recommendations for tools, improved performance, training and more. Videoconferencing apps will allow Autodesk’s' managers to gain insight into whether employees are at risk for burnout. An AI-based digital assistant will guide new hires through the onboarding process. Autodesk employees will be able to choose limits on time spent in meetings, and the digital assistant will remind them when they have gone over the limit. More than 60% of Autodesk's IT-related requests are already being addressed by a help bot. 

These efforts mirror the technologies employees use in their own lives, which are simple, intuitive and personalized. Skilled managers will find a way to blend human empathy with AI-enabled features, like chatbots, to create seamless and engaging employee experience. Human and machine intelligence working together could be the best path forward.

The solution is not human or machine; it is striking the right balance between human and machine. A recent MIT Sloan Management Review global survey found that organizations that learn to effectively combine the best of human + machine to reimagine the future will be the big winners. Innovative companies that leverage technology, artificial intelligence and other tools to empower the workforce will find success.

Bots like Jill Watson are just the beginning of the AI revolution.

Want to find out how to set your organization up for success in the new hybrid workplace? We can help.