Using conversational AI to break the silence around workplace loneliness

Can an AI assistant beat loneliness?
For someone battling loneliness at work, it only takes one person to make a real difference. But what’s to say that person has to be human?

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Homeworking is at a record high and ‘isolation’ and ‘social distancing’ are now part of our everyday vocabulary. It’s no surprise that the issue of workplace loneliness is growing at pace. So, what can you do as an employer to better support a colleague who is feeling out of the loop? Could Conversational AI provide the companionship and casual camaraderie that some employees are missing out on?

We’ve seen how video conferencing and digital collaboration platforms can help connect team members when they’re scattered across multiple locations. But what’s also emerging is a growing disillusionment with the intrusiveness of this new way of working (dubbed ‘Zoom fatigue’.) We’re already starting to see some businesses to even ringfence Zoom-free time in their weekly calendar.

Video tools have been hugely successful in bringing together dispersed teams, but what they can’t recreate is the emotional and social support workers get from casual water cooler chats and the opportunity for more spontaneous meetings for riffing over new ideas. These informal relationships with colleagues can be crucial to mental well-being and avoiding loneliness. 

But what happens when an employee doesn’t naturally find this connection in their team? Or if the appropriate colleague is no longer readily available to them? And as we navigate the new normal that emerges from this crisis, what happens if collaborating online becomes a more permanent expectation?  Could Alana provide a form of companionship that fills this gap in conversation?

Can Conversational AI  really help beat loneliness?

While the voice in your smart speaker can efficiently direct you to an appropriate advice line, it doesn’t yet have the capacity to engage in the type of dialogue a person suffering with loneliness really needs. It’s important not to underestimate the complexity of manufacturing unscripted, casual conversation.

To build a genuine connection with humans, Conversational AI needs to go beyond being friendly, polite and grammatically accurate. This is why developing conversational AI technology that can handle the layers of complexity needed to hold open-ended conversations is an important focus for the Alana team. Using NLP and deep learning, we’re training Alana to understand social context, to detect emotion and changes in tone, and to respond with compassion. In short, we’re creating virtual companions. And we’re already seeing the impact of this outside of our lab through our work with the RNIB

Why do employers need to invest in preventing loneliness?

As we ease out of lockdown many employers are prioritising the mental wellbeing of their teams. And this uncovers many reasons why employers should proactively seek to use Conversational AI to prevent loneliness in their workplace. Firstly, employers are unlikely to get the best from people who feel disconnected and alone. But as well as suppressing their productivity, the deterioration in their mental wellbeing can have wider impacts too. For example, it can cause an increase in sickness absence and you may find an employee chooses to leave your organisation altogether. 

On the other hand, businesses that invest in supporting employee mental wellbeing find that their staff are more loyal, engaged and productive. In short, they’re better equipped to reach their potential. 

As a result, mental health apps and wellbeing support services have become mainstream aspects of many employee benefits packages. But a helpline or a guided meditation isn’t always what a colleague is seeking. They simply need someone to ask them, “how are you feeling today?” This is where conversational AI could step up to provide ongoing companionship for colleagues struggling with loneliness.  

How are you feeling today?

Would someone asking this make you feel less alone? People suffering with chronic loneliness need to hear this voice and feel like someone is listening to them. And for some people and in certain circumstances, this could be better coming from a machine. 

Opening up and sharing feelings of solitude with a manager, a peer, or member of HR can feel uncomfortable. Embarrassment, shame and awkwardness can stop these important conversations from happening. This allows loneliness to linger on.

Providing the opportunity for employees to talk to the anonymous voice of a virtual colleague provides a way for them to open up on their terms, anytime they need to talk, without fear of judgement. But it’s not necessarily about replacing human interactions. In fact one of the things we’re working on is enabling  Alana to perform an ‘icebreaker’ role, making introductions that facilitate new human companionship too.

For someone battling loneliness at work, it sometimes only takes one person to make a real difference to reducing feelings of isolation. But what’s to say the person has to be human?

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