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Sustaining Human Connection: The Role of Empathy in AI-Integrated Workplaces [Insights by Julie Lee]

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 draw insights from Julie Lee. Julie emphasizes the importance of infusing work culture with human connection to enhance employee mental health and performance. This article explores the integration of AI and human elements in HR, ethical considerations, and practical advice for HR leaders to maintain empathy in the age of AI.


Julie Lee is a dynamic professional who masterfully balances her role as a mother of two with a thriving career. She is the founder of ICU Leadership, where she trains and speaks to leaders about infusing their work culture with human connection to enhance employee mental health and performance. Julie’s unique blend of empathy, strategic insight, and dedication to human connection makes her a highly respected figure in her field.


Integrating AI and Human Elements in the Workplace

With AI tools becoming more prevalent in HR, integrating AI with human elements is essential. AI offers convenience and saves time, allowing leaders and employees to focus on building stronger human connections. However, AI should never replace the natural human connection we all need.

Julie emphasizes that while AI can be a valuable tool, it should be used in conjunction with human connection rather than as a substitute. Leaders must be strategic in maintaining relationships and ensure that AI supports human elements in the workplace. By doing so, organizations can benefit from AI’s efficiency while preserving the essential human touch that fosters trust and empathy among employees.

Using AI in HR: A Balanced Approach

When AI first emerged, there was fear about job replacement, especially in HR. Now, there is a more collaborative approach where AI and human elements work together effectively. For instance, in the onboarding process, Julie suggests that AI can handle repetitive instructions and training, making it suitable for routine tasks. However, AI again, cannot compensate for the interpersonal conversations between a boss and an employee, which are crucial for building trust and empathy.

Research shows that 75% of employees find their relationship with their boss the most stressful part of their job. This statistic highlights the importance of maintaining strong human connections in the workplace. AI can handle tasks and improve efficiency, but leaders need to ensure that their relationships with employees remain strong to create a safe and innovative environment.

Lessons for Leaders on Integrating AI and Maintaining Empathy

Julie has learned from leaders that most 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 is a temptation to blame AI for disconnection. However, the real issue is the lack of intentionality. If organizations go virtual without doubling down on their people skills, they 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. AI can’t replicate eye contact or empathy. In the past, there were naturally more face-to-face interactions, but now it requires intentionality to keep those connections strong.

Practical Tips for HR Leaders

Here are some tips for leaders to ensure that AI complements human interactions:

  1. Use AI for Routine Tasks: Let AI handle repetitive and time-consuming tasks to free up time for more meaningful human interactions.
  2. 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.
  3. Be Intentional: Make a conscious effort to engage with employees on a personal level. Show empathy and understanding in your interactions.
  4. Balance Technology and Empathy: Use AI to enhance productivity but always prioritize empathy and human interaction to support employees’ mental health and well-being.

Being proactive and intentional is crucial. If leaders become complacent, AI and virtual tools can harm connections and negatively impact employees’ mental health, ultimately affecting their performance. 

Ethical and Privacy Considerations in AI

Ethical and privacy considerations are significant when using emotional AI in HR. Companies like Microsoft and HireVue have discontinued their facial coding APIs due to ethical and privacy concerns. Julie states that it is absolutely crucial to have safeguards in place to address these concerns seriously. Employees’ worries about privacy and ethics are completely valid and should be taken seriously.

According to Julie, there are a few things leaders can do to make employees more comfortable:

Open Conversations

HR and People leaders need to have open conversations about AI’s capabilities and limitations. Leaders must be transparent and well-informed, clearly explaining AI’s functions and establishing safeguards to protect privacy and maintain trust.

Understanding the Technology

Understanding AI before introducing it to employees is crucial. It comes down to intention—taking the time to thoroughly comprehend AI before advocating for it. The consequences of not understanding it and acting hastily can be significant. It’s essential to pause, understand the tool completely, and then introduce it to ensure its effective use.

Safeguards and Compliance

Establishing safeguards to protect privacy and ensuring compliance with ethical standards are vital. Leaders must set up clear guidelines and safeguards to maintain trust and protect employee privacy. This proactive approach helps avoid potential legal issues and builds confidence in the AI tools being implemented.

The pace of life and work has accelerated, and expectations are higher. We should slow down, be intentional, and fully grasp the tools we use to avoid burnout, regrets, and, well, lawsuits.

AI for Mental Health Support

AI tools are increasingly used for mental health support, but there is debate about their effectiveness. Julie has mixed feelings about AI in mental health. While she values human interaction highly, she recognizes the benefits of using AI as a support tool. AI can be particularly effective in guiding people to the right resources and serving as a preventive measure in mental health support.

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. The intention should be clear: AI is a tool to support, not replace, human interaction.

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. The key is to find a balance and ensure that human intervention is available when needed. Julie’s main concern is that relying too much on AI could diminish the essential human element in mental health care.

Advice for HR Leaders

For HR leaders who want to ensure their workplaces remain human-centric and foster empathy in the age of AI, Julie emphasizes the importance of making employees 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, says Julie

Conclusion

Balancing technology and human connection in the workplace is essential in the age of AI. By being transparent and intentional, leaders can help employees feel more comfortable and build trust in the AI tools implemented. While the rapid pace of technological change can be overwhelming, a committed and thoughtful approach allows organizations to navigate it effectively. The key is to use AI to enhance, not replace, human interactions, ensuring that workplaces remain empathetic and human-centric.

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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