Azure Bot Service – How Bots Can Drive Employee Engagement

In today’s Twitter, mobile texting and sound bite-driven culture, any friction encountered in finding solutions to one’s problems or connecting with others, just isn’t tolerated. Typically, if it’s too much work or it takes too long to get what or whom a worker needs in order to move forward, they will just go to another source.

Online chat has been available in various forms since the early 1970’s. For some time, instant messaging has been used in the business environment with great success, through applications like Skype, Quip and Slack, complementing email communications in a faster, more personal manner. Newer technologies like mobile apps, and more recently, virtual assistants like Siri, Alexa and Cortana, are enabling new opportunities in this space, to fulfill information or social needs within the business. Modern web robots, bots, bring this low-friction conversational interaction, either text- or voice-enabled, often backed by AI capabilities, into the context of the communication tools we use everyday.

Azure Bot Service and Amazon Web Services (AWS) Alexa Skills and Lex services are making these technologies available to businesses and individuals, in order to enable an ecosystem of small, targeted, custom applications, with very low friction when enabling and using them. Because these are typically fine-grained and cloud-enabled applications, providing rapid deployment and scaling, they could well be called microservices.

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Employee Engagement

A current challenge in businesses today is to increase employee engagement, in order to retain, develop, and challenge employees, helping them to be more productive and fulfilled, and encouraging them to invest even some of their discretionary time and energy in the common endeavor of the business, strengthening the employee-employer relationship.

Employee engagement is the extent to which employees feel passionate about their jobs, are committed to the organization, and put discretionary effort into their work. Employee engagement is not the same as employee satisfaction. – www.custominsight.com

HR surveys indicate that true employee engagement is difficult to achieve, with typical organizations reporting about 30% of their employees are “engaged”, per the above definition. Also, employee engagement is only slowly increasing.

How might a low-friction bot or virtual assistant help meet this organizational goal?

Make My Job Easier

No one likes to write weekly reports. A bot could be used to capture pertinent snippets of an employee’s activities, accomplishments and challenges as they do their daily work. This would have minimal impact upon their productivity and “flow”. When their report is due, the snippets could be logically assembled into the reporting format and delivered to them, requiring only final embellishment and wordsmith-ing to complete.

Knowledge workers often need short, hard-to-remember facts such as URLs, passwords, key contacts or values in their work. A bot could be used to store those items in their personal “flash memory”, and recalled via smart search when they again need them.

The Aggregate Brain

Most workers occasionally need small organizational and personal facts, often found in employee or HR manuals, personal online profiles, or “lost” in key organizational documents. A bot could be used to make these facts available, on-demand.

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  • How much PTO do I have? The bot could also return other related facts, such as how many PTO hours I will accrue in the next period, and when, a short history of my PTO hours taken this year, etc.
  • Who is the HR contact for my 401-k?
  • What is the URL for our SharePoint portal?
  • Who is the best contact for this aspect of the business?
  • Where does Alfred sit?
  • Who is currently or has used this technology or management method?

A bot could make key, often-used, curated content available at a few keystrokes.

Key skillsets of employees could be made available and searchable through a bot.

Strengthening Organizational Bonds

Workforce engagement has been shown to increase dramatically when employees receive regular feedback about their strengths and constructive feedback about their weaknesses. Some companies are using employee-focused tech, such as pulse tools, feedback apps, and anonymous social networking tools that may eventually replace annual 360-degree performance reviews. A bot could be used across an organization to build a culture of immediate and specific “atta-way” feedback, catching employees in the act of excellence, storing feedback for later aggregation.

Today’s workers live in social media. Making one another’s hobbies, outside-work skills, food and music preferences, etc. available through a bot may strengthen workers’ outside relationships with one another, further strengthening the bonds within the organization.

Analogously, bots and virtual assistants can also help a business improve engagement with their customers.

“If you like your app, you can keep your app.”

These technologies can be multi-present, often surfaced through multiple channels, using applications like Microsoft Teams, Office 365, Outlook, SharePoint, and other Microsoft and third-party communication tools, as well as via mobile SMS text and custom apps. Again, this reduces the friction in using them, since they are available in the same context in which we usually work.

How a Bot Works

A bot is essentially a backend web application that has access to the information it is intended to make available. The user usually interacts with a bot via a text window in another communication application, such as SMS texting or a custom app on a smartphone, or an application like Skype, Microsoft Teams, Slack, or Facebook Messenger. Azure Bot Service is used to implement conversations in the bot web application and also provides channels which translate application-specific conversations into more generic Azure Bot Service conversations. Bots can also be built using Azure Functions in a pay-per-run costing model.

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Enhanced Capabilities

Bot conversations can be made more flexible and robust with natural language understanding services such as Microsoft Cognitive Services LUIS.

Bots can be in/out speech enabled, similar to Amazon’s Alexa or Microsoft’s Cortana, also using available AI services.

Microsoft’s QnA Maker can ingest existing FAQ documents to quickly facilitate bots that easily handle pre-defined question-answer formats.

Bot user interfaces can be enhanced with rich media, attachments and cards (small graphic expressions of information).

Types of Bots

  • Task automation
  • Information
  • Enterprise productivity
  • Handoff to human, triage and escalation
  • Search
  • Control internet of things (IoT)
  • Proactive (Bots are usually responsive; however they can also initiate conversations, such as when triggered by a user’s searches, etc.

Conclusion

Conversational bots, whether text- or speech-enabled, provide a modern, low-friction user interface to key organizational information and colleague resources. Cloud enablement and powerful software development toolkits provide the capability for organizations to implement these targeted, high-impact services. When these are used to make workers’ jobs easier, faster, more enjoyable, and more connected, they have the potential to build a “best place to work” and increase employee engagement.