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Practical AI is Already Here

Today's post was written by Bill Bartow, vice president of global product management at Kronos.

Open any mainstream magazine or news site and there's a good chance you may be overwhelmed by the headlines: from automating surgical procedures, to building frighteningly-lifelike robots, and causing computers to think and behave like humans, there is a lot of hype around artificial intelligence (AI).

Except the lion's share of the conversation is more fiction than fact. It's no different in the world of human resources (HR)–no space is immune to the high expectations around AI. And, like many other industries, this hype too often leans negative: A 2018 Workforce Institute at Kronos survey found a third (34 percent) of employees across the globe view the rise of AI as synonymous with the replacement of their roles altogether.

It's apparent that a lot of what AI is said to do, be, and become isn't even on the radar. The panic of job loss via AI is even being assuaged by industry-leading research analysts like Gartner, which now predict AI will create more jobs than it eliminates. And even the good stuff yet to come–the big moonshots like curing cancer and reverse-aging–won't happen today, or tomorrow, or even in the next ten years.

But that isn't to say AI isn't already making important and beneficial strides in automating the underbelly of workforce processes. This is what I call practical AI: advancements in technology intended to wick away administrative work and solve the real and widespread problems affecting the global workforce every day, especially for the hourly workforce.

Whether it's employees being anxious about booking flights because their time off hasn't yet been approved, or managers having to spend hours reviewing and managing proposed schedule switches, AI is beginning to realize its extraordinary potential to take on the tedious and time-consuming processes that bog people down, breed anxiety, and get in the way of the work people actually want to be doing.

Here are three examples where AI can make a difference today:

1. Don't leave employees hanging: Real-time time-off requests

We all know what it feels like to submit a request for time off–and then anxiously wait for the boss's yay or nay. Even if you've already talked with your manager about the request or know you have plenty of time in your accruals bank, it's common to feel uneasy until the time has been approved.

In fact, The Workforce Institute at Kronos found that more than a quarter (28 percent) of employees feel frustrated with how long it takes their managers to approve time-off requests. And perhaps for good reason: In that same survey, nearly half (47 percent) of employees report having had a time-off request rejected by their employer within the previous 12 months.

By tapping into AI and machine learning, scheduling engines can empower employees to take more control of their work-life balance and unburden the repetitive, highly manual process of reviewing time-off requests off managers' shoulders so they can focus on solving bigger business problems.  

2. A stress-free scheduling experience–without the back-and-forth

The same Workforce Institute survey also revealed that nine out of 10 employees think their organization could improve scheduling processes, with 28 percent wishing their organizations would embrace self-scheduling. It doesn't seem like an unreasonable request. After all, who better to determine what a good schedule is for an employee than the employee her- or himself?

Self-scheduling has been a growing trend for the last several years, and now, coupled with practical AI, employees don't even have to go through the process of building their own schedule. Practical AI can look back at the last six months of an employee's schedule and analyze which shifts they actually worked, which they swapped out of, which they swapped in to, and even the types of jobs they preferred doing and people they preferred to work with, then offer up a personalized schedule.

Not only does this streamline scheduling, it also ensures that both employee preferences and business needs are met.

3. Advanced shift-swapping: From guessing game to an exact science

Imagine: Your babysitter cancels at the last minute, or your dentist appointment is pushed back an hour, and there's a last-minute scramble to find someone to take your shift–calling, texting, and posting on social media in hopes of finding coverage. Even then, there's no guarantee a manager will approve the swap. It adds stress to an already stressful situation and often requires too many touchpoints in the small window of time you have.

Practical AI is being used by organizations to help their employees take the stress and friction out of shift-swapping. The system already knows who's scheduled, who's free, and if a certain time aligns with an employee's preferences. It can then make intelligence recommendations based on who you've swapped shifts with before and who's picked up similar shifts at similar timeslots in the past, and can approve the shift swap for you on the backend–no managerial intervention required.

Not only do these solutions already exist, but one third (33 percent) of employees want them and the flexibility they offer to swap, cover, and opt for more shifts from a mobile device.

Bonus: Tackling risky unknowns

In addition to automating time on and off the clock, AI as it exists today is exceptional at addressing the more nitty-gritty tasks relating to workplace compliance. For example, say an employee clocks in three minutes early and clocks out five minutes late for her shift. Her manager may inadvertently–or, worse, intentionally–shave those extra eight minutes off her timecard to help hit labor goals, perhaps without realizing this is a huge violation of labor regulations.

This is where practical AI works as an auditor, drilling into massive amounts of data–often tens or even hundreds of thousands of punches–to identify when and where risky behavior often occurs. Then, it can offer up easy-to-digest insights so that managers can be educated about potential fines and the importance of ensuring employees get paid for every minute they work.

The rising humanity of AI

While there's immense opportunity for AI to continue to mature and make some really big changes in our society, we're already seeing important advancements that are improving the day-to-day working lives of employees and managers alike.

The true promise of AI is that it's starting to, and will continue to, make jobs easier by: removing barriers of collaboration and communication; cultivating trust and transparency; and ultimately boosting engagement as employees get paid accurately, have adequate time off to stay fresh, feel free from distractions, and are able to focus on the high-level work that they truly want to do.

This article was originally published on as "Hey Siri, Swap My Shift".

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