Could chatbots help HR evolve into a more strategic business function?

Between 50% and 80% of routine employee interfacing can be automated, one expert claims.
article cover

Dianna “Mick” McDougall/Getty Images

· 5 min read

Hello, I’m [insert futuristic, yet plausible-sounding first name], your smart assistant for all HR-related queries. How may I assist you?

Although you may not currently delegate your transactional conversations with employees to a chatbot named Xander Smart Assist or Tanya Tell Me 2.0, the above sentence might be a reasonable approximation of how an AI assistant could begin answering questions about an employee’s healthcare package, or how much PTO they have left.

In today’s hyper-connected workplace, HR pros might feel like air traffic controllers. An hourly influx of missives could mean your day is spent tethered to Slack, directing traffic to the right landing page in the employee handbook. The hope, among vendors like the smart-assistant platform Paradox, is to automate the majority of these transactional interactions, the company’s president and chief product officer Adam Godson, explained. Ideally, when queries fly in, HR can summon the bots, and thus be free to consider more “decisions about how the organization should function [rather than] answering emails about how much time off people have and all the other basic things,” he explained.

The tech has potential for helping HR evolve into a more business-oriented and strategic planning role, Godson said. But when issues get thornier and more nuanced, chatbots should be used to signal the need for human intervention, rather than attempt to be a cure-all, sources stressed. “If I go to a chatbot and say I’ve had a death in the family, or I’m having issues with my manager…then someone can pick up the phone and call you because that’s the moment that matters,” Eser Rizaoglu, senior director in the Gartner HR practice, told HR Brew.

Automating HR. The term “AI” has garnered buzz in recent months, especially in the workforce, as more HR pros use tools like ChatGPT and predictive attrition. Chatbots are becoming “more and more pervasive” to facilitate a host of things for employers, from the recruitment cycle through onboarding and day-to-day interfacing, Rizaoglu explained.

Though bots can be helpful, HR tech is by no means entering a revolution where everything can be automated in a pinch. “It’s very early days,” Godson explained, but glimmers of where automation will take HR are starting to emerge. “The next phase [is some] of the low-level emotional things, like [a chatbot asking], ‘how was your first week at work? Do you get along with your manager? Tell me about a time where you felt frustrated at work.’”

Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.

Godson wagered that about 50–80% of HR duties that involve answering questions from employees could presently be handled via automated tools. It’s an indication of how much HR has changed in recent decades, Max Armbruster, CEO and founder of the automated recruiting solution Talkpush, said. “All administrative jobs that are repetitive can already be automated. This includes benefits and payroll administration, phone-screening candidates, vacation and expenses processing,” he wrote via email. “These roles used to make up 90%+ of the HR headcount in most organizations.”

What a bot can’t do. Yet. Chatbots have clear shortcomings when employees need more nuanced interventions, Guido Kuznicki, co-founder and CEO of conversational interface Lara AI, warned. If “because of a personal issue, I’m less engaged with a company, [Lara] will maybe understand that and we’ll share an output with the HR team. Then the HR team is always there to help the people and to solve issues,” he said.

An inability to grasp nuance might be one of the chatbots’s biggest pitfalls. In a 2021 Gartner survey shared with HR Brew that asked 3,500 employees to rank 60 HR tech solutions, chatbots “were ranked poorly by employees for current value and future importance due to the limited support they provide for more complex requests.”

Adoption can present kinks as well, especially if an organization is accustomed to doing things in a more traditional vein. “There are old ways of working where employees are used to picking up the phone and speaking to a certain person in HR. They built that relationship and they want to retain that relationship. So, trying to get people to make that shift can be hard,” said Rizaoglu.

Strategy > bots. The rise of bots doesn’t mean humans can expect to be muscled out of human resources in the near future, Rizaoglu said. Moreover, it should free HR to assume a more strategic role. With the right automation in place, “we can then focus our time on other things, such as design thinking principles, or improving the customer experience for our employees and our candidates,” he added.

The overall goal, according to Kuznicki, is making the experience of working in HR less of a time suck. “At the end of the day, we are helping the HR team to make their time much more efficient,” he said.

Perhaps a bot can help with that.—SB

Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.