In the push-and-pull between employees and labour groups, one company in the US is using a chat-based workforce bot to connect employees and provide them with essential workplace information.
In the lead-up to the holidays, an external labour group in the US called OUR Walmart is promoting a new tool to help workers navigate the complex web of policy around leave and worker’s rights. Called WorkIt, the newly launched workforce bot was created by IBM using artificial intelligence programmed to answer worker questions about health, safety and benefits, as well as to access aggregated policy advice. The objective? To empower employees to connect with one another and assert their rights when it comes to questions about leave or overtime pay.
It’s an initiative that’s set to shake up the way the retail giant interacts with worker organisations, as well as show up the blind spots in its transparency towards employees.
Bots in the workplace have the potential to create new issues as well as solve them, and HR should consider the fact that this technology – harnessed by labour and activist groups – has the power to hold organisations to account.
While the OUR Walmart group was initially funded by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, it’s recently broken away to function on its own outside of the traditional union format. In this form, it now manages the workforce of America’s largest private employer, a group of more than 1 million workers, with 44,000 members on their Facebook page.
WorkIt’s algorithm is designed to draw from hundreds of pages of company policy and employee guidelines to deliver accurate and reliable answers to worker’s questions. It also allows them to chat with other workers across the country and access legal advice. One noteworthy consequence so far has been a push by Walmart to warn its workers away from using it.
Walmart is dissuading its workers from downloading the workforce bot app, warning them publicly that it’s a scheme to persuade them to “turn over personal information to the union by using deceptive and slick looking social media and mobile apps,” according to the Wall Street Journal.
“Our people are smart and see this for what it is: an attempt by an outside group to collect as much personal and private information as possible,” said Walmart spokesperson Kory Lundberg in a statement provided to BuzzFeed News. In response, OUR Walmart has told Bloomberg that it doesn’t collect location-based data and won’t sell user information to third parties.
Walmart, which employs some 1.3 million workers in the U.S., has a long history of face-offs against labour unions over rights and pay.
In the past, workers who wanted to access to the company’s more than 250 pages of human resources policy were required to use Walmart’s intranet service – only accessible on company computers during periods employees were on the clock, according to Bloomberg Businessweek. In recent years, however, negative press and activist pressure has compelled Walmart towards a greater degree of transparency.
Last year, for example, the retailer added training programs to help workers advance through company ranks, and made several other concessions to labour leaders’ concerns. And, according to a company spokesman, the corporation has improved access to clear policy information for their workers. They state that since early 2016 employees have been able to access information about the company’s paid time off and leave policies from any device.
The OUR Walmart group says that their next move is to license WorkIt to other organisations (it says a labor group in Australia is interested) and even to companies. An early contributor to the group and co-founder of the Workers Lab Carmen Rojas suggests it’s a new way forward for companies.
“A higher-road employer would license it,” he states. “If I were the CEO of Costco, I would.”
Troy Burch, a labour organiser in Australia, has said that unions are looking forward to using the workforce bot, and suggested that some data gathered by the app could be used at the bargaining table when it comes time to negotiate new contracts.
What’s certain is that the labour group’s app has poked a sore spot in the corporation’s HR practices, highlighting the new ways social technology can be harnessed to hold organisations to account.