By Gloria Lombardi

Good working practices involve putting people first; shared values, such as respect for the individual, should be at heart of the organisation. The employee experience is paramount, considering how it impacts engagement and productivity, and so personalisation – the tailoring of a person’s workplace to their priorities – can improve the experience and boost performance.

Personalisation starts with focusing on the person as an individual, with their strengths, weaknesses, preferences, and aspirations. The individual needs some level of autonomy and choice when it comes to how and when they work at their best. The relationship between employer and employee needs to transform – to become an alliance focused on shared goals and mutual respect. This transformation is not insignificant, and requires an overhaul of systems, processes, and structures in order to put people first.

Personalising the employee experience requires an understanding of people in and out of work. For people first, it’s about creating tailored experiences for capturing the ‘whole’ person. The company provides a cutting edge artificial intelligence system to make it happen. The platform gathers behavioural insights about individuals and yet respects and safeguards privacy.

MARGINALIA speaks with Mark Williams, Chief Marketing Officer at people first, to explore what it takes to provide personalisation and empower employees in the 21st century. In this interview, Williams describes the importance of taking a holistic view of the person, and the fundamental change to the employer-employee relationship. He describes how people first’s AI technology works, explaining how personalisation supports better person-centred outcomes.

Gloria Lombardi: people first works on the idea that if the work experience is personalised, people will enjoy their work more and be more engaged. Why is personalisation so important in 21st century workplaces?

Mark Williams: The critical problem to solve in our workplaces is disengagement. A staggering ninety per cent of employees globally are not engaged with their jobs. This is not just a productivity issue, it’s a real human issue. If people enjoyed their work more, lives would be better.

We’re in 2018, yet organisations are still adopting a 19th century, industrialised framework for work. There has been a wave of change around the concept of being an employee, but the structure of work hasn’t changed. What we’re used to in our personal lives, in terms of choices and personalisation, doesn’t get reflected at work.

Companies are trying to engage people into a type of work that doesn’t really fit the modern ethos; then they wonder why productivity is so low.

To solve this problem, work needs to be personalised. At a simple level, we must move away from the outdated industrial thinking that where we live dictates where we find work. The internet has opened up greater opportunities, helping people find jobs based on their skills, motivations, and interests, and developing a career that is tailored to individual circumstance and desire.

GL: So, organisations should personalise the experience of work in order to support greater productivity and consider individuals’ happiness. But how should they approach privacy when delivering personalisation?

MW: We cannot talk about personalisation without being concerned with privacy and data ownership. Because, as much as we’d like it not to be, the employer-employee relationship could be abused. It could become an unequal power relationship.

At people first, we execute a personal privacy protocol. We know that our software will not make much difference unless the organisation is ready to address their power structures. So we come to a sort of ‘people first agreement’ that helps people across the hierarchy express their expectations upfront.

Beyond this mutual respect, we provide practical safeguards around people’s personal data too – in effect, the employer does not own the individual’s personal data. Even while our platform gathers crucial information, privacy is at its core.

At people first, all the personalisation, which is all the personal data about ‘you’ as a person – for example, your personality, motivations, possible physiological data, etc. – influences your experience, yet it is held in a private store, in an encrypted personal account. Our long-term intention is to make the personal data portable – the employee should be able to take their data with them when they move to another company.

We’ve developed our approach to privacy by recognising the very worst risks and potential abuses and building safeguards accordingly.

GL: Given technology’s enormous impact on society, it’s refreshing to see a provider so clearly considering the ethics of data harvesting and protection so seriously. This isn’t just a policy, it’s practically baked into your platform, is that right?

MK: Yes, our privacy safeguards are completely practical, not just theoretical. It’s good business, actually; we must be cognisant of the ramifications of our work. It’s easy to get utopian about software solving everything. The book, ‘Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy’, by Cathy O’Neil explores how messy ‘big data’ can become for individuals. As ‘big data’ users, we need to protect people, and companies, from the difficulties caused by mistuned biased algorithms and the risks of personal and performance information being accidentally, or criminally, made public.

GL: Returning to the human element of work, how does people first help organisations capitalise on such a ‘soft’, human, concept?  

MW: On the people first platform, organisations can celebrate the human element of their employees through social video profiles, which are about you, your whole self – not just who you are at work. Being an artificial intelligence system, it can automatically take that information and build your profile page to help your colleagues get to know you.

An employer who only thinks of people in terms of what they do at work is short-sighted. Such a narrow viewpoint prevents an organisation from understanding their employees’ extra skills, extra knowledge, and outside experiences that could be relevant internally. And from the person’s point of view, it’s an uncomfortable and inconvenient way to compartmentalise yourself. This is something that our parents and grandparents used to do. But that way of working doesn’t exist nowadays, especially for the younger generations. It’s becoming more and more important to fuse who we are outside of work and who we are in work. I mean, if you don’t bring your whole self to work, where are you, really, during working hours?

The person’s profile page is a truly social profile; it includes contributions from managers and colleagues. It showcases favourites books, movies, places, and activities, and the groups and projects they’re involved with. It’s a window into the individual’s life, not just into their skills and duties. Such a rich profile helps strengthen working relationships, and definitely helps start working relationships. It’s great to be able to connect with people before meeting them in real-life or when you’ll be collaborating remotely.

Colleagues can also recognise your skills and contributions, awarding you for your direct input, exceptional work, or such things as your creativity and help. This public, social, recognition celebrates the human element of work.

GL: When organisations empower the individual, that person must take on more responsibility too. What are your thoughts around responsibility with regard to personalisation?

MW: When individuals agree to the ‘people first agreement’ I mentioned, expectations are set from the start between the employer and the employee. They are effectively saying, ‘I’m going to be an adult’. This is in contrast to the parent-child relationship created by many 20th century workplaces – that still exists in many organisations today. The employee, being an adult, must be responsible for the effort they put in to their performance. That effort includes using what we call ‘Fitbit at work’. We help to quantify your work and identify what you are good at and what you are bad at. This is your personal data, and so it’s all safeguarded by our privacy protocols. The expectation is that you’re working in alliance with the employer – you’re not just sitting back and waiting to be told what to do.

In terms of personalisation and responsibility, intrinsic and extrinsic motivations come in to play. If you are intrinsically interested in doing something, you could well be given more autonomy, more leeway to just get on with it the way you think is best.

But if extrinsic motivation is the main driver, then maybe process adherence, clear goals, and management support are much more important. This doesn’t mean the individual will automatically put in less effort or perform poorly at all, it just means that the motivation for doing the job is outside of the job itself. This can influence management style and the responsibility split between employee and employer.

GL: How does the artificial intelligence of the people first platform influence personalisation?   

MW: A great manager wants to understand the strengths and motivations of each team member and provide individualised coaching. Considering changing goals, changing organisational structures, and just the speed of work these days, this is a difficult challenge for managers. There’s only so much time in the day.

The AI at people first facilitates this process automatically. Face-to-face contact is incredibly important; we know there’s a sweet-spot – people need quality time with their manager every three weeks, and there needs to be a level of interaction through the week. Our AI facilitates ‘augmented check in’ – the system asks you relevant questions, based on your personal information, which is in the system and not available to your employer. The people first AI becomes like a third person in the room, drawing together what the employer and employee need to maximise the working alliance.

As long as we do not give up total control, AI can be incredibly freeing. It can take up all the boring bits of jobs, such as letting your manager see your to-do list and progress, saving you from having your flow interrupted by your manager just to ask “Have you done this? Have you done that?”. People want to focus on the rewarding activities, such as meaningful progress, personal learning, and relationships. On top of all the good things that come from engaged, fulfilled employees, there’s a real bottom-line advantage too, derived from improved productivity, agility, and better overall performance.

AI will continue to impact the employee experience, and we just need to be aware of the impacts on society and the individual. Right now, AI in the workplace is still new; people first is proud to be cutting edge in this arena yet we’re going purposefully slow. We progress at a slow pace with purpose. We’re making sure that the workplace remains human, full of the personal interaction that makes for rich experiences.