Building empathy and learning for frontline workers in the age of AI and digitization

By Derrick Gyamfi

Senior Manager, Innovation Strategy

Derrick is an emerging technology strategist for a leading hospitality brand. In his position, he quarterbacks strategic growth initiatives, partnering with subject matter experts to understand business problems, investigate new opportunities, test novel products, architect processes, and develop go-to-market strategies.

I started my hospitality career working at the Culinary Academy of Las Vegas, the largest provider of training for entry-level and incumbent workers in the Las Vegas hospitality industry. My role was leading digital transformation and innovation, and one of my key initiatives was to change the way workers think about technology.

The role of technology – including AI – is as a way to augment our work. Technology can help by enabling, educating, and equipping us to do our best work. I found the best way to help people on this journey was to be an advocate for them when it came to technology.

With Las Vegas being most susceptible to automation, the reaction from workers is, “What do we do? Automation is coming to take our jobs!” As an industry, that’s what many immediately think. We think technology reduces the need for us and reduces our opportunities. But that’s not accurate.

AI by itself isn’t going to replace people’s jobs – but the person who uses AI probably will.

The best use cases for AI are use cases that require human interaction. Our guests like the personal touch and a chatbot alone can’t provide that.

We see the data shows that people don’t actually appreciate the chatbot experience when it comes to hospitality. (Hotel Tech Report, PwC)

Guests paying to stay at a hotel are paying for an exceptional service experience. They want to see somebody when they get there. We see this at airports, even though there are many kiosks, many people will still stand in line to talk to a person. The same is true for hotels and resorts. 

People still require the human touch in hospitality.

An example of a good AI use case for hospitality

Like most companies, we have a call center to help our guests make reservations. AI can work behind the scenes to empower our agents to provide incredible service. 

If I’m booking a reservation for a particular hotel, I might see a restaurant they liked before has a table available and I can offer to make a reservation. Or, if you ask about dining options, I can quickly make AI-powered suggestions based on their preferences and our availability. It can make our agents much faster and more helpful for our guests. 

Doing this requires connected systems. Without digitizing guest profiles and connecting databases, you can’t enable this type of service.

Understanding the barriers to digital adoption

Many of our frontline workers have been in the industry for 20+ years. Their job hasn’t changed much. They’re also union, so in terms of job security, they’re pretty secure. Unfortunately, this has also meant they’ve had few opportunities for reskilling training or upskilling to get them up to speed on digital fluency because the roles haven’t changed much.

But AI is coming and it’s coming fast, so they need to get up to speed quickly. 

85% of the adult American population own smartphones. We look at that number and say let’s build an app and deploy it for frontline associates. Or let’s build some technology because we think people have these devices and should be able to access them. But the reality is that while 80% may have smartphones, do your frontline associates have them and know how to use them for what you have planned?

In many cases, people on the front lines of hospitality lack basic digital literacy to use an iPhone or an Android. While employees have email addresses, many don’t check their emails. Some don’t even have access to the Internet. They have phones, but maybe they don’t have appropriate or sufficient broadband data on their phones to access these resources. Their middle school or high school child may have helped them through the online application to get the job. 

Just putting AI-powered technology in front of them misses the point that they may not be ready to use it yet.

These are some of the barriers we need to think about in terms of equity when it comes to deploying these technologies that no one is talking about.

How we can think about upskilling or retraining

In hospitality, we want all of our products to be user-centric. This is a mantra for many technology developers. We also need to think about the deployment of our technology.

We need to be worker-centric. We need to be people-centered because the essence of hospitality is people, and these people are not just our guests.

I firmly believe if we can get workers up to speed on using technology, will be able to provide a phenomenal guest experience. If we get our people up to speed with the right skills, we can create the right efficiencies and improve our operations, but free up their time to engage our guests in a more human way. They can provide a much more personal experience versus someone going to a machine and scanning their ID and seeing an automated message.

I’d like to see a world where our associates are empowered to engage in and provide recommendations to our guests versus directly from AI. Using AI directly with guests is not the most ideal hospitality experience today

Building empathy and learning from frontline workers

When I first took my role at the Culinary Academy, I spent my first month in classrooms with students. I attended class and followed them around as they were learning to make beds and do other tasks within a hotel business. I listened to the questions they were asking.

What that did for me is cause me to question some of the assumptions I had that everybody was digitally fluent and spent the day on LinkedIn and using the latest technology.

Many of our students were new Americans. For many, English is a second language. They were not only trying to get acclimated to a new role in the new job but they were trying to get acclimated to a new culture. They had kids at home coming back with homework they were trying to deal with.

When we think about innovation, it’s important to think about these factors because unless we do so, innovation will continue but adoption will be impeded.

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