Soon we will all be collaborating with robo-colleagues. The chatbot market is projected to grow at a CAGR of 22.6% between 2023 and 2032, with much of this growth occurring in the IT service management segment. Virtual assistant solutions will also see heavy adoption in HR, sales and marketing, operations and supply chain, and finance and accounts. 

GenAI and advancements in natural language processing will improve the accuracy and responsiveness of virtual assistants. But how will employees themselves respond to their virtual colleagues? The success of these human-virtual agent collaborations will be largely determined by how quickly and enthusiastically people embrace these new ways of working, and how well they sustain newly learned behaviors. So far, enterprises have found actual virtual assistant (VA) implementation to be a challenge, largely because many employees are inherently skeptical of these automated support solutions. 

Across all industries, leaders know that virtual assistants will advance productivity. As a result, they’re not slowing down their digital transformations. To keep pace with the technology, organizations will need to double down on human-centric change management strategies to build a currency of trust and foster positive relationships between human and virtual assistants. 

Why Employees Resist Virtual Assistants

One important reason employees resist virtual assistants is that, in the past, VAs simply weren’t very impressive. This leads to some common preconceptions about VAs: that they are not intelligent enough to make strong recommendations, for example, and can’t solve complex problems. Employees assume that VAs continue to struggle with complicated or unusual language such as colloquialisms, abbreviations, fragments, and mispronunciations. Lacking a deep understanding of AI, employees may believe that VAs are simply reading from a script. Some even worry that interacting with VAs will contribute to loneliness and erode social skills. 

Beyond these specific objections to VAs, employees are also experiencing a more generalized "change fatigue.” Employees who have experienced frequent and disruptive shifts in enterprise technologies often lose their willingness to cooperate with change. Gartner now cites change fatigue as one of the top emerging concerns for today’s HR leaders.   

Given all of these challenges, organizations often face an uphill battle as they encourage the adoption of even the most capable VAs. 

Six Strategies to Pave the Way for VA Adoption

IT and change leaders need to reckon with these negative human perceptions of VAs. 

Ideally, a VA service experience should be perceived as superior to phoning or emailing a live agent/service desk. This will encourage people to enthusiastically embrace virtual agent colleagues and learn to fully leverage their capabilities. Because so many of the issues associated with VAs are human rather than purely technological, a human-centric change management approach is required to build symbiotic relationships between humans and their VA counterparts. Human-centered change management leverages principles from psychology, sociology, and behavioral science to instill the mindsets and behaviors that can deliver digital transformation goals. 

The following six change management strategies, in particular, can de-risk VA implementation: 

  • Emphasize adoptive communication: The most important piece of implementing a new virtual assistant is to establish strong mechanisms for two-way communication with employees. Employees do not need to embrace the new solution on day one, but they do need methods to provide the feedback that can improve the VA. Change teams can initiate honest conversations with employees by openly communicating that the VA is not yet perfect, and welcome input about user needs and expectations. This honest conversation will promote a virtuous cycle of use and value, motivating people to engage with the VA knowing that they can play an active role in improving it.
  • Improve VA visibility: If employees do not trust a new solution, mandating its use can backfire. Instead of mandating that employees use the new VA, change leaders need to first make it visible to employees. The VA workflow should align with employee expectations about how to access information and support services, including making the VA easily accessible through MS Teams, mobile apps, and other frequently visited enterprise platforms to encourage voluntary use.
  • Prioritize digital education: Within the larger support journey, organizations can ensure that nudges and digital adoption popups make employees aware of the new VA when they are seeking real-time help. These pop-ups can also educate employees about how best to interact with the new solution. For example, providing employees with examples of effective chat prompts will increase the likelihood that they will be able to extract value from the VA.
  • Scale through storytelling: If change teams can encourage influential business users to share stories of successful engagements with the VA platform, those stories can have a profound effect on enterprise-wide adoption. Meanwhile, engaging and equipping “change champions” in the most important business units — whether or not they are senior leaders — can further solidify trust in the VA platform.
  • Enable continuous listening: Listening is about more than just surveys and options to evaluate the new platform. Change teams should involve employees early as UX testers before full-scale deployment. User interviews should continue to be conducted well after implementation to provide a rich sense of how employees are experiencing the VA solution. If continuous feedback leads to a major update, change leaders should close the loop by clearly communicating how feedback is helping evolve the VA capabilities and shape a better employee experience.   
  • Sustain new ways of working: Change leaders often fail to sustain new ways of working because they are satisfied with seemingly glowing opinion-based user responses. To validate whether users are as happy with the new VA as they seem, leaders need to focus on behavioral insights. Interventions that move the overall adoption needle should continue. Interventions that generate kind words but show no impact on user behavior metrics are not making a difference.

Virtual Colleagues: A Key to the Future of Work

As organizations embrace the future of work through digital transformation, one of the top priorities will be to create a humanized workplace in which smart digital colleagues perform many of the repetitive tasks once performed by humans, improving productivity and enabling the human workforce to focus on projects that benefit from human creativity and critical thinking. 

In the past, virtual agents have been perceived as a hindrance rather than a digital transformation catalyst. In the future, they will be a positive force, reducing menial and repetitive tasks across all global enterprises and powering a more dynamic employee experience. But success will not be automatic. As technologists build the fluent, reliable virtual assistants of the future, change leaders need to prepare their teams to work seamlessly with those virtual colleagues. An intentional, human-centered change management effort is the best way to create positive experiences with these virtual colleagues and ensure that they become a respected presence in the future of work.

About the Author

Promity Chakraborty
Senior Consultant- Talent & Change

Promity has more than 15 years of diversified experience in consulting, change management, digital transformation, organization design, HR transformation and organizational development, along with post M&A integrations across multiple industries and geographies.