Can Machine Learning Make Us Happier at Work?

January 7, 2019 - 7 minutes read

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Machine learning (ML) is helping us tackle some of the world’s toughest problems. From diagnosing diseases more accurately to driving our cars for us, there seems to be no limit to what’s possible with this subset of artificial intelligence (AI).

But can it show us how to be happier at work?

Driving Happiness With Data

Humu is a startup on a mission to elevate the happiness of workforces around the world. Based in the San Francisco Bay area, the company was founded by three Google veterans. It builds on the pioneering work of the people operations (human resources) department of the tech titan, such as its research into what fuels optimal teamwork and makes great managers.

Humu utilizes similar data-driven insights in tandem with machine learning to identify what behavioral changes would improve a specific workforce’s satisfaction the most. It then sends text messages and emails to steer individual workers toward small steps that bring the team closer to this grand goal. The startup calls these messages “nudges.”

For example, let’s say the majority of employees at a company feel there is a lack of transparency in decision-making. Before an internal meeting, Humu may send a nudge to team leaders reminding them to ask for input from everyone and remain open-minded. Or Humu may nudge team members to remind them to compile questions they’d like answered.

A Nudge Towards a Better Version of Yourself?

The startup’s trademarked “nudge engine” is at the foundation of all that it does. It’s based off the work of Nobel Prize-winning economist Richard Thaler. Thaler’s research examines how people usually make choices based on what’s easier instead of what’s truly best for them—and how a simple well-placed nudge can help guide them toward better decisions.

In the past, Google has used this principle to steer its employees to eat healthier, save more for retirement, and waste less resources. Humu believes that machine learning can help them optimize the impact of these nudges by tailoring factors such as content, timing, and communication methods based on how employees are responding to the messages.

Laszlo Bock is a former leader of Google’s human resources department. He’s now Humu’s chief executive. He explains that baby steps are the key to giant leaps in self-improvement: “Often we want to be better people. We want to be the person we hope we can be. But we need to be reminded. A nudge can have a powerful impact if correctly deployed on how people behave and on human performance.”

Striving to Improve Personnel Management

Bock worked at Google for over ten years. During this tenure, Google grew to reach over eight times its original size. This exponential expansion led to some serious internal struggles, with many employees even accusing the company of being a hostile environment for women.

Last November, The New York Times broke news of how Google had paid off male executives accused of misconduct with multimillion-dollar exit packages. The result was 20,000 employees walking out of their offices to protest how the company handled sexual harassment. It demonstrated that, while Google may be groundbreaking in terms of methodologies for managing its workforce, there was still large room for improvement in other areas.

Bock wrote a book in 2015 that detailed Google’s data-driven approach to personnel management and became well known in the field. A few years later, he sought to bring his findings and strategies to other organizations. So, in 2017, shortly after leaving Google, he founded Humu with two former coworkers: Wayne Crosby and Jessie Wisdom.

Crosby is a former director of engineering at Google. Wisdom worked with Bock in people analytics and holds a doctorate in behavioral decision research.

Not long after, Humu raised $40 million in funding. Today, the company has 15 customers ranging from small companies of 150 to massive organizations of 65,000 workers.

Whose Interests Are At Heart?

It’s no secret that personal data privacy is of paramount importance in today’s modern world. Humu says its nudge engine was built from the ground up with employee privacy as a main priority. It not only fully complies with Europe’s strict data privacy regulations but also enables employees to delete personal data.

Still, many workers wonder who benefits most from the company’s nudges: them or their workplace? “The companies are the only ones who know what the purpose of the nudge is,” says Todd Haugh, assistant professor of business law and ethics at Indiana University.

“The individual who is designing the nudge is the one whose interests are going to be put in the forefront.”

Dr. Wisdom understands this concern. But she says that the vast majority of Humu’s messages encourage general behavior that most people would find helpful in any circumstance.

“Anybody can do whatever they want,” she explains. “It’s just about designing the context in which people are making the decision in ways that is going to help the most people. We’re never trying to get people to do things that they don’t actually want to do.”

Humu’s nudge engine is undoubtedly innovative and possibly the future of human resources. But it’s clear there are some kinks to work out, especially when it comes to employees’ perception of the motives behind the messages.

What do you think about this startup’s strategy to improve worker happiness? Would you appreciate a few nudges from time to time to keep you on track? Let us know in the comments!

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