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Qualtrics - the importance of workplace relationships and trust in a new AI-driven world

Cath Everett Profile picture for user catheverett June 7, 2024
Understanding universal human needs in an AI era may sound like a paradox but it’s going to be more important than you might think to navigate the disruption ahead. Ben Granger, Chief Workplace Psychologist at the Qualtrics XM Institute, explains why.

Diversity And Inclusion. Business Employment Leadership. People Silhouettes © Andrey_Popov - Shutterstock
(© Andrey_Popov - Shutterstock)

If employers wish to thrive in an increasingly uncertain future driven at least partially by technologies, such as AI, learning how to meet their employees’ basic psychological needs will be key.

This is because, according to Ben Granger, Chief Workplace Psychologist at the Qualtrics XM Institute, speaking with diginomica in the runup to the vendor’s X4 The Experience Management Summit in London:

Some things have remained universally important: workplace relationships are super-important and humans are social animals, so that’s not going to change. The need to grow and develop to enhance your status is another universal human need. Having volition and control over your life is another. Work is a great way to achieve all three and, if they’re there, work becomes a healthy way of meeting these basic psychological needs. It’s a really good thing for companies to bear in mind as we move into an uncertain future driven by technologies, such as AI. Quantum computing will really shake things up at the end of the decade too. So, how do organizations prepare for change? They anchor onto the universal.

Granger also pointed to the “foundational” nature of trust in workplace relationships, which “helps accelerate many other things”:

If I say ‘I trust you’, it literally means I’ll engage in positive behaviours towards you and I’ll be open to what you say. There’s a hormone that’s released in this situation – oxytocin. So, there are real biological reasons beneath the surface that give you a feeling of peace and safety. It literally brings people together. So, remembering that we’re social creatures, good things can happen when people come together either virtually or in the office.

Workplace relationship and productivity connections

Unsurprisingly then, there is both a direct and indirect relationship between positive workplace relationships, productivity and performance. In terms of the direct relationship, Granger said:

For example, if you have a good, trusting relationship with someone at work and you’re struggling with a project, they’re more likely to go out of their way to help you. It’s not about them getting good ratings. It’s because they care about you and want you to be effective. So, there’s a direct impact on individual and group performance, which is critical for organizations to keep in mind.

But Granger also warned that “group-level performance doesn’t always add up to the sum of its individual members”. He explained:

People say they’re more productive at home as there are less distractions. But that isn’t the question organizations should be interested in. What they’re interested in is group-level performance. So, a good question is ‘you’re more productive at doing what, and how does it coordinate with the team to make things greater and better?’ So, are you getting a ‘one plus one equals three’ acceleration and is it more productive in the great scheme of things?

As for the indirect relationship between positive workplace relationships, productivity and performance, Granger pointed to XM Institute research, which had revealed some telling findings:

The two most important factors to determine whether employees picked one job over another were their relationship with the manager and other team members. So, relationships are important from an attraction perspective. But those relationships also manifest themselves in better customer experience and customer loyalty, which drive company performance.

The employee experience and customer satisfaction link

Granger cited the example of Chipotle, an international chain of fast-food Mexican restaurants. It found that in those stores where respect and trust between employees was greater, customers gave a better rating on how their food tasted. Granger explained:

It’s about perception. Perhaps the stores may have been configured slightly differently too, but there was a better atmosphere - and customers pick up on that. 

A senior care provider in Canada likewise discovered that families gave a better Net Promoter Score to those facilities where employees felt their managers cared about them. They were also more likely to use the company’s services to support other family members in future too.

A third example related to a major US airline. If its call centre staff felt they could have honest conversations with managers about their mental health, again customer ratings improved. Granger said:

There needs to be an underlying foundation of trust, and that’s picked up very directly by customers. So, there’s clearly a direct and indirect relationship between positive workplace relationships, productivity and performance.

The importance of trust

But trust is also a crucial factor when introducing potentially disruptive technology, such as AI, into the workplace. In fact, a Qualtrics XM Institute study found a significant difference in how comfortable employees were with the rollout of AI based on their personal engagement levels. Granger explained:

It’s about trust levels, so if employees aren’t engaged, they’re more distrustful. But comfort largely depends on how AI is deployed. People are more comfortable if it helps them augment their work, for example with tasks like scheduling or writing. But if you ask how comfortable they are in AI making hiring or promotion decisions, comfort levels drop, for evolutionary reasons. Humans have traditionally made decisions socially. So, deciding if someone would be promoted within the group has always been made purely by humans, sometimes using tools. But having a foreign agent make decisions like that is alien.

An example of where AI can work well though is in business-to-consumer service industries to boost customer service quality. Granger cited the example of a restaurant group that operated a mixture of fast-food and fine dining facilities and deployed AI to handle time-consuming back-of-house activities:

The technology took care of things that kept employees from having high quality interactions with customers and didn’t interfere with that important human-to-human connection. I have friends who are clinical psychologists and had a big ‘aha’ moment when talking to one of them about this. She said: ‘AI can tactically do what a counsellor does but it can’t care for a human in the same way’. That’s because you don’t get that oxytocin release with a machine. So, companies deploying AI need to remember that – they should be clear about what’s in it for their employees. And they have to be mindful of not allowing AI to intervene in customer relationships that are expected to be genuine.

A further consideration when implementing AI is not to move forward more quickly than the workforce is comfortable with. Another is being careful not to focus on efficiency gains at the expense of improving wellbeing “or it’s likely to come back and bite you”, Granger warned.

Tackling the RTO conundrum

But given the crucial role that work relationships play in employee wellbeing, it raises the question of the potential impact of lower levels of contact between colleagues due to hybrid and remote working. On the one hand, Granger said:

Humans have a deep need for affiliation. We’ve been communicating non-verbally for millions of years and it’s only over the last few hundred thousand that we’ve learned to speak. So, using things like Zoom, we lose a lot of information that’s passed to us non-verbally and unconsciously in the form of body language, which is important for building trust relationships with each other. That’s why you see even those people choosing to work in remote environments value opportunities to be physically present with team members. Many data points suggest we can build relationships virtually. But it takes more effort and has to be more intentional. 

On the other hand, it is also clear that many employees value a better work-life balance. As Granger pointed out:

Two factors are competing in the minds of employees. There’s a need for collaboration, affiliation and to be together to socialise as ‘one plus one equals three’. But there’s also a need for flexibility. Both are important and present in most people we studied across the globe, so they pull on each other a bit. If you bring everyone in full-time, you may get a bit of a collaboration, efficiency and innovation boost, but employees may also feel their volition has been taken away. But if employees are fully remote, you may lose collaboration etc. So, we don’t believe there’s one right answer in how organizations balance these needs. It’s context-specific. While it’s tempting to ask what others are doing, it’s also important to go a bit deeper and understand what the organization’s goals are and what your people need. So, it’ll take a bit more effort to determine how things should operate most effectively in your unique culture.

My take

Taking a ‘people-oriented’ approach can no longer remain a cliché. If tech organizations are to survive and thrive into the future, they’re going to have to dig deeper into their employees’ and customers’ psyches to understand what makes them tick – and how they can build trust.

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