The Importance (and Profitability) of Staying Human

By now, you may have heard artificial intelligence (AI) discussed in many contexts. To clarify, this article is not a sci-fi read. However, let’s take a moment to define it for the purpose of this article. AI generally involves machine learning or intelligence demonstrated by machines.

As such, AI is achieved when a machine can mimic human cognitive functions. In short and thinking positively, AI occurs when machines start to think for themselves as they continue to learn and problem solve like we do. Alternatively, well, think T2, HAL, etc…

Moreover, since AI is already part of our environment—from relentless ads for things you have Googled to the daily news from Alexa—it has become increasingly vital for us to consider the importance of staying human in our technologically driven world.

Defining the Human Moment at Work
Back in 1999, Dr. Edward Hallowell wrote a thought-provoking article for the Harvard Business Review called “The Human Moment At Work.” Hallowell defines the human moment as “an authentic psychological encounter that can only happen when two people share the same physical space.” In 1999, Dr. Hallowell gave this a name because he felt it was starting to disappear from (back then) “modern” life.

The fact is, Hallowell was onto something. The “human moment” has two prerequisites:

1. Physical presence; and
2. Emotional and intellectual attention.

Consider this for a moment. Although you may be physically present with your co-workers each day, you’re likely not emotionally and intellectually connected as often as you think. Dr. Hallowell’s analogy states: “You could sit shoulder-to-shoulder with someone on a long-haul flight and not share one human moment with them, unless you look them in the eye and engage in some sort of conversation.”

The Science of Connection
A human moment can be businesslike and brief, but changes everything. People begin to think in new and creative ways after just five minutes of face-to-face interaction.

When such human moments disappears, our brains replace it with worry. Technology (for example, email, texting, slack, chatbots) removes the quintessential cues and clues—body language, facial expressions and tone of voice—which communicate volumes and lessen the gravity of such worries.

Here’s the science. Positive human-to-human contact reduces the levels of the stress hormones epinephrine, norepinephrine and cortisol. In addition, hormones that promote trust and bonding rise. These are oxytocin and vasopressin. These trust hormones are present when we feel empathy for another human. Similarly, in the absence of human connection, they are suppressed.

Above all else, people need human contact to survive. If that’s not enough, we need human contact for mental acuity and emotional well-being. Even repetitive work habits can actually diminish our brain’s performance if not varied. Our brains are fuelled by variety, rest and human contact. Without this fuel, we do not operate at our peak.

A Cautionary Note on Connection
In Jeanne Meister’s thought provoking and informative November 2017 article in Forbes Magazine, “The Future of Work: How AI Will Transform the Employee Experience”, she describes specifically, the presence of chatbots in HR Systems, are “revolutionizing candidate and employee experience.” The presence of AI in HR systems is real. AI provides employees with quick answers and easy access to the mundane and the complex. It’s changing the way HR professionals operate in their space.

So, why the cautionary tone?

Simply put, performing human-like tasks is not the equivalent of being human. We cannot connect with a chatbot.

Beware the Failure to Flex
An employee who grows accustomed to asking the HR chatbot questions, stops flexing their brain after a while. It’s like going to your bank and using the ATM machine. It’s easy. You don’t need to “think” about it. This is awesome because it is convenient, quick and efficient. It gives me more time to go out and spend my money.

However, the less we need to “think” about something, the more likely it is for the brain to effectively shut down that particular pathway, diminishing mental acuity. This is where the human moment comes in again. Without the fuel of human interaction, there is no fulfillment. There is no transformational experience. We are not operating at our peak. We are not flexing. Without flex, we no longer create. Unfortunately, by no longer creating, there will be less innovation—our brains get lazy—and without innovation, well, there’s no business.

The suggestion here is not to say “avoid AI at all costs.” Rather, let’s think of ways we can embrace AI (the same way we’ve embraced our ATM machines) and leverage our opportunity for human moments because of it.

Four Ways to Stay Human
Here’s how we can create human moments in an AI era:

  1. AI in HR means more time. More time for real human interaction. If I am no longer answering questions about payroll and vacation status, then I have an opportunity for a meaningful one-on-one connection with an employee.
  2. Make mental wellness your #1 priority. Pay close attention to the anxiety levels among your employees. If you’re noticing a spike, it’s likely because there hasn’t been enough human interaction.
  3. Focus on purpose and meaning. The ever-growing presence of AI means less opportunity to feel connected emotionally to the work we do. Take the time to have employees discover their personal values and strengths. Create opportunities for them to align their purpose with that of their organizations.
  4. Create opportunities for employees to flex their creativity. Designate quarterly design days, challenges and friendly competitions. Integrate more play and fun into the workplace to stimulate our brains in varied and unpredictable ways.

AI is here to stay and since it is hinged upon learning constantly from humans, let’s makes sure to do the same in return. If we want to maintain our human existence now and in the future, it is our duty and obligation to not only teach, but truly learn, what it is to be human.

What can you do today to be more human?

Jennifer Curleigh and Lorie Corcuera are elevating life experiences at work with SPARK Creations & Company Inc. a training and development organization that inspires people and companies to create meaningful cultures and workplaces.

(PeeopleTalk Summer 2018)

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