Q&A: Cultivating Empathy in AI-Powered Workplaces with Julie Lee

Leaders must be strategic in maintaining relationships, ensuring AI complements rather than replaces the human element in the workplace.

While AI offers remarkable efficiencies, it brings forth challenges, especially concerning human connection and empathy. In 2023, a study by EY found that half (52%) of employees believe their company’s efforts to be empathetic toward employees are dishonest ― up from 46% in 2021.

To address this growing concern and explore the impact of AI on empathy in the workplace, we had a conversation with Julie Lee, Keynote Speaker, Head of Coaching at Relevant Speaker, Author, Podcaster and Mom.

Part 1: Integration of AI and Human Elements

Q: So today, we’re discussing empathy in the age of AI and how human and AI elements can work together. With AI tools becoming more prevalent in HR, how do you see the integration of AI tools with human elements in the workplace? Can they work together effectively, or are there areas where humans should always take the lead?

Julie: I believe AI and human elements can definitely work together effectively if used thoughtfully. AI offers convenience and saves time, but it should never replace the natural human connection we all need. AI can enhance efficiency, allowing leaders and employees to focus on building stronger human connections. It’s crucial to use AI deliberately, ensuring it saves time on tasks while intentionally using that saved time to foster human interactions. 

AI can be a powerful tool, but it absolutely cannot replace human connection. Leaders must be strategic in maintaining relationships, ensuring AI complements rather than replaces the human element in the workplace.

Q: When AI first emerged, there was fear about job replacement, especially in HR. Now, we’re accepting AI and collaborating with it. Where do you think we should use AI versus a more human approach?

Julie: Using AI for tasks is fine as long as we maintain interpersonal connections. Leaders need to ensure their relationships with employees are strong to create a safe and innovative environment.

Where to use AI in HR: Anything repeatable is great for AI. Training and onboarding often involve repetitive instructions, making them suitable for AI. 

Where NOT to use AI in HR: However, AI can’t replace interpersonal conversations between a boss and an employee. It can’t replicate eye contact or empathy. For onboarding, AI can handle training, but human relationships are irreplaceable. Research shows that 75% of employees find their relationship with their boss the most stressful part of their job. AI can’t fix that. 

Part 2: How can Leaders Maintain Empathy?

Q: Since you work with leaders regularly, what have you learned from them when it comes to integrating AI and maintaining empathy?

Julie: I’ve learned that most leaders are dedicated to enhancing human connections and are not looking to replace these interactions with AI. They understand the importance of empathy and strive to maintain strong relationships with their teams.

With the rapid advancement of technology and AI, there’s a temptation to blame AI for disconnection. However, the real issue is the lack of intentionality. If we go virtual without doubling down on our people skills, we will face more problems. Leaders need to understand that it takes deliberate effort to use virtual tools and AI systems effectively while maintaining human connections. In the past, we naturally had more face-to-face interactions, but now it requires intentionality to keep those connections strong.

Here are some tips for leaders:

  • Use AI for Routine Tasks: Let AI handle repetitive and time-consuming tasks to free up time for more meaningful human interactions.
  • Prioritize Human Connection: Schedule regular check-ins and face-to-face meetings, even if they are virtual, to maintain a personal connection with your team.
  • Be Intentional: Make a conscious effort to engage with employees on a personal level. Show empathy and understanding in your interactions.
  • Balance Technology and Empathy: Use AI to enhance productivity but always prioritize empathy and human interaction to support employees’ mental health and well-being.

We need to be proactive and intentional. If we become complacent, AI and virtual tools can harm our connections and negatively impact employees’ mental health, ultimately affecting their performance.

Part 3: Ethical and Privacy Considerations:

Q: Companies like Microsoft have discontinued their facial coding APIs due to ethical and privacy concerns. What are your thoughts on this move? How do ethical and privacy considerations impact the use of emotional AI in HR, and what can we learn from these decisions?

Julie: To start with, it’s absolutely crucial to have safeguards in place. And to be honest, I have my own concerns about AI’s capabilities, and it should be expected for many to share the same worries. Employees’ concerns about privacy and ethics are absolutely valid and should be addressed seriously.

To make employees more comfortable, 

  • We need to understand the tool before introducing it to employees. HR and People leaders need to have open conversations about AI’s capabilities and limitations. It’s not enough to simply assure them; leaders must be transparent and well-informed themselves. They should be able to explain AI’s functions clearly and set up safeguards to protect privacy and maintain trust. 

It comes back to intention—taking the time to understand AI before launching it. The repercussions of not understanding it and acting hastily can be significant. The pace of life and work has sped up, and expectations are higher. 

  • It’s also essential to create guidelines and be proactive in addressing concerns. Leaders should ensure that AI is used responsibly and ethically, with a focus on enhancing rather than infringing on human decency and privacy. 

By being transparent and intentional, we can help employees feel more comfortable and build trust in the AI tools we implement. Although the rapid pace of technological change can be overwhelming, a committed and thoughtful approach allows us to navigate it effectively.

We should slow down, be intentional, and ensure we fully grasp the tools we use to avoid burnout, lawsuits, and regrets.

Part 4: AI in Mental Health Support:

Q: AI tools are increasingly used for mental health support, but there’s a debate about their effectiveness. What are your thoughts on using AI for mental health support in the workplace? Can AI effectively complement human support systems, or are there areas where it falls short? 

Julie: To be honest, I have mixed feelings about AI in mental health. When I hear about AI and mental health together, I get a little uneasy because empathy and connection are so important. However, I can see the benefits of using AI as a complement, not a replacement, especially for getting people to the right place.

Research showed that 78% of people felt it [COVID-19] severely impacted their mental health, with 53% struggling with depression, 52% with anxiety, and 32% with PTSD.

AI can serve as an initial touchpoint, especially for those who may feel ashamed or hesitant to seek help from a human initially. If AI can guide them to professional help, that’s a win. However, it’s crucial to ensure AI doesn’t replace human empathy and understanding. The intention should be clear: AI is a tool to support, not replace, human interaction.

What I said before, applies here too -> Leaders need to be transparent and create guidelines to ensure these tools enhance, not harm, mental health support.

AI can help those uncomfortable with traditional therapy by offering a non-judgmental starting point. If it leads to more people getting help, even if it’s not perfect, that’s still beneficial. My concern here is that we might go too far and rely too much on AI, which could diminish the essential human element in mental health care.

Part 5: Practical Advice for HR Leaders:

Q: What advice can you give HR leaders who want to ensure their workplaces remain human-centric and foster empathy in the age of AI? How do you genuinely foster empathy and not just use it as a buzzword?

Julie: There are many ways to answer that question, but I’ll focus on what I consider most important. Three things – we need to help our people feel seen, appreciated, and trusted. These three words should be at the core of your values.

  1. Seen: Do your employees feel seen as individuals and not just as numbers? Use their first names in conversations. There’s brain chemistry and psychology supporting how hearing one’s name lights up the brain.
  1. Appreciated: Do they feel appreciated? Gratitude creates momentum, healing, and higher performance. Highlight their strengths with specific compliments. Understand how they prefer to be recognized—publicly in a meeting or privately with a note.
  1. Trusted: Is there trust between you and your employees? Show trust by not just offering help but also by asking for help. This models that it’s safe to give and receive support and that asking for help is a sign of collaboration, not weakness.

To become a more connected leader where people feel seen, appreciated, and trusted, start with these tools. When employees feel these three things, they’ll want to follow you anywhere. That has been my experience.

Mariam Mushtaq

I'm a Content Writer at Springworks. Drawing from my early career experience in HR, I bring a unique, insider's perspective. Driven by a passion for the People and HR function, I research and write about topics such as employee engagement and the future of work.

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