How old Facebook plus new AI could save remote work

Work from home is failing, with more and more companies demanding their employees return to the office. AI-driven tools for onboarding and employee engagement could fix that.

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I’m seeing two conflicting trends at the moment: office buildings are being turned into apartment buildings because of excess vacancies due to work-from-home practices, and companies like Zoom are demanding that employees come back to the office — even if it isn’t in the firm’s best interest.

Employees mostly still want to work from home, and staffing shortages still largely give them a lot of say as to where they work. So why are companies now balking at employees working remotely? Generally, it’s because managers still haven’t been trained or given the tools they need to manage remote employees.

The employees who do want to work in the office tend to be those who are new to the organization, particularly those coming right out of school. This, too, is partially a management problem. Companies often don’t provide onboarding tools that help new employees feel like they are part of a company and that they have the same advantages as those who have been with the firm longer or go into the office regularly.

This week I want to focus on the last part of the problem — the need for new employees to feel like they are part of the company. To fix that problem, we need the old Facebook.

Facebook? Hear me out

I’m talking about the early version of Facebook that Mark Zuckerberg created as a Harvard student. This social networking tool was designed to help new students create relationships and to better connect them to the school so they felt like they belonged. This is the identical problem that new employees are facing, particularly those who are just out of school and have never worked for a firm before.

Granted, this app would need to have better controls (such as the ability to prevent an upset employee from sharing their feelings with the entire company) and ideally include some AI capability to advise in engagements between employees. Trolls and employees who behaved badly on the app could be terminated for cause, since the app would provide all the evidence needed to support the termination.

Generative AI would be an ideal addition to the app, because it is conversational and would respond to employees consistently and without judgment. It could answer their questions about the company, point them to company resources, and conceivably replace other HR tools, like static websites, that today do a poor job of onboarding employees. 

The AI could also be used to flag behavior that could indicate that an employee is being abused, is under high stress, or has become very sick. It would be triggered by both content and the amount of use the app is getting over time. An issue for remote employees, particularly those who are single or single with kids, is the potential to have a personal crisis overlooked by co-workers or managers when it might have been picked up if they were in the office — or failed to show up. The perception that no one cares can lead to depression, behavioral problems, and/or quitting — quiet or otherwise. If managers are made aware that an employee might be headed down this path, they can try to head off a dire outcome.

Management would, of course, also be active in the app, both as observers and as mentors. Frequent interactions with their remote employees in the app would help make both the managers and the employees feel comfortable with their remote working relationship.

A new and improved social app for employees

A big reason why new employees seem to want to go back into the office — and managers want employees to return — is a lack of engagement. A tool like the old Facebook coupled with generative AI and trained to help both managers and employees interact would go a long way toward making both more comfortable with work-from-home.

In addition, it would better protect the remote employee from making career-ending mistakes and help form a friendship circle of mutually supported employees, creating far better camaraderie — potentially even better than they might have had in the office. 

We can fix this problem, but only if we focus on it and execute. 

Copyright © 2023 IDG Communications, Inc.

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