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Microsoft integrates Copilot into its employee engagement platform, Viva - but does AI really lead to better engaged employees?

Tom Wilson Profile picture for user Tom Wilson April 24, 2023
Summary:
Microsoft looks to lead the pack in employee engagement software as it integrates its AI assistant, Copilot, with its employee engagement product, Viva. How might employees and leaders who take up this technology expect to be impacted?

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At a recent summit, Microsoft announced that its AI assistant, Copilot, will be rolled out across its employee experience platform, Viva; news which won’t come as too much of a surprise given artificial intelligence hype is flooding through corporations around the globe. Microsoft is looking to lead the pack with its major partner, OpenAI, a research laboratory that the organization has invested over $10 billion in to date. Microsoft is using OpenAI’s ChatGPT to underpin its Copilot tool. 

Microsoft also released the results of its Work Trend Index research detailing the effect that improved employee engagement has on various financial metrics. With this data they look to depict a clear direction for customers: better employee engagement increases your market cap, vital amidst this uncertain economic climate. Therefore, the tone was positive regarding Viva’s AI integration, as Microsoft maintains it’ll boost productivity for its near-20 million users. Corporate VP of Modern Work and Business Applications, Jared Spataro, enthusiastically states:

It's going to rewire how organizations operate and will be a game changer for productivity…By bringing AI to work, copilot serves as a force multiplier, amplifying human ingenuity…

Separating the wheat for the chaff, the announcement and the data raise a couple of questions. As AI works its way into products and services across the industry, what real impact will it have on employee experience in Microsoft’s client organizations? And what will the AI-powered workplace look like? 

The data behind AI-fueled growth.

Microsoft’s launch is propped up by the release of their Work Trend Index research. The data suggests that the top 10% most engaged organizations performed twice as well on the turbulent 2022 stock market than the least engaged organizations. Jared Spataro adds:

Put simply, companies with highly engaged workforces have better financial outcomes. engagement can no longer be a nice to have, together, engagement and productivity form the new performance equation.

Corporations have been vying to develop and market employee engagement platforms with greater ferocity since the pandemic. As workplace habits shift and greater emphasis is placed on employee welfare and experience, innovation follows as companies like Microsoft look to secure pole position in the HR tech race. That is where Copilot comes in. As a tool it claims to boost efficiency with what founder Bill Gates has called “the most important technological advance in decades”. 

Employees and leaders will have the ability to generate natural language engagement content, such as briefings, presentations, and mass-emails, by inputting prompts into Copilot’s interface. The benefit on the employee, CEO of Ragan Communications Diane Schwartz believes, is in the connections it forms between employees. She states:

It can unlock all of the connections that we have in all of the output and productivity and research that is available within our networks.

Her confidence is borne out of the idea that AI will carry the burden of smaller, repetitive tasks and leave the employee to focus on the actions arising from the analysis. Employee engagement, in turn, would be encouraged, as the employees have more time freed up to make connections, collaborate, and feed-back.

This use is certainly compelling. Copilot touts the ability to streamline tasks such as goal setting, as the user can prompt the tool to generate step-by-step pathways to achieve the organization's key objectives. The extent of the responsibilities this technology can take on, however, is still up for discussion. The real impact that tech like Copilot will have on the day-to-day experience of the employee is yet to be seen, and can only be gauged by comprehensive employee surveys. 

The changing face of the workplace in the age of AI

Something we were keen to grasp, however, was how Copilot may materialize in the workplace, and how the face of the workplace could change, given the presence of an ubiquitous AI assistant. 

From the demonstrations, Copilot will operate like a chatbot, where the user will feed in comments such as “Write a post for my employees about our recent stock market data”, and the program will sift through the available data and ‘pen’ a natural language bulletin that can be shared within the Viva employee software. Microsoft constructs an inevitably cookie-cutter image of a collaborative and inclusive workplace that is freed from the shackles of mundane tasks. The practical application, however, is unlikely to be as positive - and employee-derived opinion data was conspicuously absent from the keynote. 

Driven by their research data, Microsoft’s lofty claims were overwhelmingly centered around leadership queries. Rather than presenting how AI might enhance inter-employee engagement, it focussed on how Copilot might better inform how leadership communicates with the wider workforce. Questions might reasonably be raised as to how AI eliminates the need for swathes of analytical workers and support positions across the industry. As we push into an AI no man’s land, workers are looking for how their livelihood might be affected. To this question, Microsoft’s platitudes offer little reassurance. Corporate VP of Business Applications and Marketing at Microsoft, Emily He, states:

And it's up to all of us, our customers, our partners to work with us to explore together how this is going to impact the workplace and what new skill sets humans have to cultivate to complement Copilots so we can be the pilot that we're positioned to be in these very exciting times.

In the event that staffing is not affected by this mass-automation, He’s optimistic query raises a vital question that corporations will have to ask moving forward. How can this technology be adequately distributed to the workforce, and how can we implement training programs to ensure its benefits are felt by all. Otherwise, corporations run the risk of further widening the tech gap between leadership and the workforce. 

My Take

Excitement around artificial intelligence is understandable, especially considering these conversations are dominated by business leaders whose position is, for now, relatively stable. I agree with the need for greater engagement in the workplace and a renewed vigor in the field of employee welfare. Copilot as an omnipresent assistant was touted as the ultimate productivity booster, however little was said about how the human-face of the workplace might change given this new technology. How AI interacts with employee engagement is a question corporations will need to ask as companies such as Microsoft increasingly invest capital into the technology. But perhaps the more pressing question is how will employee’s concerns about their future be addressed? And Microsoft’s Viva summit, whilst intriguing, omitted discussion on the potential staffing impacts down the line. Its certainty is difficult to swallow given increasingly uncertain times. 

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