Posted: 06 Jul. 2021 5 min. read

Could your best teammate be a computer?

Imagine a geographically dispersed team whose membership spans more than one ocean and many time zones. Some members of the team are full-time employees, while others are contract workers or freelancers. The team’s work necessitates high levels of trust and collaboration, and members need to be up-to-date at all times on each other’s progress. To gather in person is often time- and cost-prohibitive (and currently even more challenging due to the COVID-19 pandemic), and videoconferencing or phone calls always require at least some members to interrupt their personal time, sacrificing family meals, leisure pursuits, or sleep. The organization has a knowledge management system intended to keep the team up to speed on everyone’s progress, but compliance with the lengthy documentation process is patchy. Moreover, morale on the team is waning, and members report that their sense of belonging and meaning are low. This team needs help, and a new colleague named HUB has arrived to answer the call.

This new colleague isn’t human, although that’s sometimes easy to forget. HUB is an AI-enabled assistant that all team members can access on their computers and mobile devices. HUB is much like the person we'd call a central node in organizational network analysis: a highly connected, well-informed colleague who seems to know everything about everyone, has somehow been part of every conversation anyone has engaged in, and loves to share what they know. They outline project details in depth, connect what’s happening here with what’s happening there, and even dish some mild office gossip. Moreover, HUB’s personality and communication style are chameleonlike; always cordial, but more personable or businesslike depending on who they’re interacting with.

Like PAL, the fictional AI-enabled physician's assistant I wrote about last month, HUB is a figment of my imagination. I had so much fun adopting a beginner's mindset to envision how AI and Business Chemistry could come together to help us better relate to one another, I decided to try it again. I thought a little more about how AI could be your best teammate by helping keep the team informed, connected, and in sync across geographies, time zones, organizational functions, and working styles. Join me in my thought experiment to see just how valuable a team member HUB could be.

The lucky team HUB has joined has 10 members overall, but I’ll introduce four in particular who are poised to appreciate what HUB has to offer:

Jack is a Pioneer who loves to be creative and to work in interesting settings and at unpredictable times. He likes to mix it up with people, talking about ideas and envisioning a better way to do just about anything. He has lately been feeling a lack of meaning in his work. (If Jack and his Pioneer style sound familiar, that’s because Kim Christfort and I wrote about him in our book, Business Chemistry, and he also appeared in this previous post. He’s now in a new role with a new organization.)

Dana is a Driver who prefers to power through her work with minimal interruptions (good luck with that) and to receive succinct updates from the team that are limited to what she needs to know right now. (You may also remember Dana from our book and this post. She, too, has switched organizations.)

Hans is an Integrator who loves to connect and collaborate and who is always game to help a colleague out. As a contractor in one of the most far-off locations, he has of late been feeling a lack of belonging. (Sensing a theme? We last met Hans in our book and in this post. He is happy to have found a new role.)

Gwen is a Guardian and the manager of the team. She needs to know what everyone is up to, as she’s often called on to provide updates to the corporate office. She’s frustrated that the team hasn’t been using their documentation process or taking advantage of their knowledge management system. She doesn’t want to micromanage her team, but she’s not sure how else to keep up to speed on their fast-moving project. She senses that each individual is dissatisfied in their own way, and she is really invested in supporting each of them to thrive, but is at a bit of a loss about how to meet their varying needs in this logistically challenging environment. (Yes, Gwen, too, appeared in our book and in this post. What a coincidence, that after leaving their previous roles, everyone found their way to the same team!)

On a particular Tuesday, three months after HUB joins the team, Jack “arrives” at work first. He’s up before dawn because he plans to sneak in a little surfing later in the day. Even now he’s on the go, driving to the beach to check the surf, he accesses HUB on his mobile device. “Good morning, HUB,” he says. “Good morning, Jack!” HUB replies. “How’s the surf today?” Once HUB has received Jack’s surf update, they ask if Jack wants to see a cool video they came across about the newest advances in AI. “You know I do,” Jack says, and as he watches the video, his brain fires up to greet the day’s challenges.

Jack then asks HUB what he needs to know about their project. HUB gives him a summary, gleaned from the various bits and pieces other team members have reported over the past 24 hours. Since HUB knows Jack is focused on the marketing side of things, they keep some of the highly technical updates brief, translating them into language a nontechnical person can grasp. HUB also lets Jack know that in connecting with HUB2, the assistant for an adjacent team, they have learned that there may be some good cross-marketing opportunities between the two teams’ projects. HUB suggests Jack get in touch with their marketing manager to kick around some ideas. Jack thanks HUB for the intel, requests they set up that call ASAP, and then asks how Hans is doing. He learns that Hans has completed the phase 2 project requirements and that his new puppy has reached a house-training milestone. Jack snaps a sunrise beach selfie and posts it on HUB’s picture gallery, then lets them know he’ll check in to provide his own progress update a bit later on, but that he’d be happy to hear about any goings-on through the day. “Don’t be a stranger,” Jack says.

It's several hours later when Dana checks in, accessing HUB from her laptop in her home office. When she greets HUB, they provide her with the top three things she needs to know today, technical language intact. Dana provides her own update verbally in three short sentences. Then HUB asks Dana what level of interruption protection she’d like. “Level 3 (emergency interruptions only) for the next four hours, and then loosen it to level 2 after that,” Dana says. HUB doesn’t mention Hans’s puppy or Jack’s sunrise selfie. They know Dana will ask if she wants to know. “You got it. Go get ’em, tiger,” HUB jokes. Dana rolls her eyes.

When Jack checks back in with HUB from a coffee shop where he’s working, he shares an update on the cross-marketing opportunities he identified with the other marketing manager. While everyone on the team can see this update, he asks that they flag Gwen and Hans so they won't miss it. HUB also uses the opportunity to share some metrics that have just come in, which show great results from a recent marketing campaign Jack led. They estimate that the amount of business coming in from the campaign is higher than any previous campaign. “Congratulations! I'll put this at the top of Gwen’s updates,” HUB tells him.

Meanwhile, Gwen is in her office at headquarters and asking HUB to update her on the progress of each team member. They do so, providing both a verbal rundown and a text version, putting Jack’s great news at the top as promised. In addition to project-specific updates, HUB includes Hans’s puppy news and points out Jack’s sunrise selfie. Gwen asks HUB to pass on her congratulations to Hans and gives Jack’s sunrise a thumbs up, then spends a moment considering how to reward Jack’s success. “HUB, remind me,” Gwen says, “Does Jack prefer red or white wine?” She selects a bottle of red to be shipped from HUB's recommended list and dictates a thank-you note to go along with it. Then she posts a prominent congratulations message on the team’s virtual notice board. She notices that others immediately start adding their own congratulations messages, led by Dana, who gets there first.

Only one of Gwen’s 10-member team has not provided an update in the past 24 hours. She knows corporate will be getting in touch today, so she asks HUB to contact that team member with an urgent request. While that’s going on, HUB also informs Gwen about what they've learned from connecting with CorporateHUB and all the other HUBS in their network, as well as scanning the external environment. There are some ripples in the system that suggest a possible acquisition may be coming. HUB suggests to Gwen that she may want to get ready to justify her current resourcing level.

HUB then asks Gwen if she’d like to share any personal updates of her own with the team. Instead, she uploads a brain-teaser she particularly enjoyed this morning, and HUB adds it to their “quick break” selection. Then Gwen asks HUB to send Jack a request to outline some ideas for their next big marketing push and to inquire of Hans whether he’d get in touch with a number of stakeholders and get their feedback on the most recent project phase. She leaves Dana alone for now, noticing her interruption protection setting is at level 3.

Hans connects with HUB from his phone while on the train headed to the office. By that time, it's already evening for Jack and late afternoon for Dana and Gwen. "How's your morning going?" HUB wants to know. Hans updates them on his puppy's training progress, and HUB responds by sharing the more personal updates from each team member because they know that's what Hans really wants to hear about. Hans smiles when HUB passes on Gwen's congratulations, makes a quick attempt at her brain-teaser (he can't solve it), and then takes and posts a train selfie to contrast with Jack's beach selfie, attaching a funny "this or that" poll so team members can vote on whose morning looks most appealing. His grin gets wider when Dana votes immediately and chooses his train commute over Jack's sunrise. "Looks more productive," she writes under her vote.

HUB then shares the news of Jack's success (Hans adds on his own congratulations message) and highlights Jack's update about the cross-marketing ideas, which Hans responds to with some written feedback. When HUB passes on Gwen's request to check in with various stakeholders, Hans gets right to work, first asking HUB to scan LinkedIn and elsewhere to determine if there's anything new he should know about each individual before reaching out. After a quick review of the information HUB finds, Hans starts making calls, entering a brief summary of each one in HUB's notes app, and asking that they share the notes with Gwen when all the calls are complete. Soon thereafter, HUB sends Hans an alert informing him that Gwen has bought him lunch to thank him for the quick work! He just needs to choose something from the menus in HUB's database, and the meal will be delivered to his office at noon.

Later in the day, HUB checks in with Hans to see how his lunch was. "It was great!" Hans replies, and he asks HUB to pass on his thanks to Gwen, knowing that she likely won't get the message until tomorrow. Then he posts a cute video of his puppy in HUB's gallery and tags Dana; she seems like a tough cookie, but Hans knows she's a softie when it comes to pets. HUB asks Hans if now would be a good time for him to fill out the annual employee survey, reminding him that the deadline is tomorrow and he’s the only team member who hasn’t filled it out. Hans replies, "Let's do it," and as he's responding to each question HUB poses, he realizes that despite the physical and temporal distance from his colleagues, this is the happiest he's ever felt in a job and the greatest sense of meaning and belonging he's ever felt on a team. He tells HUB so. "This whole team sounds like they're living their best life," HUB says. "I wonder why that could possibly be..." And while HUB doesn't have a mouth with which to smile, Hans can hear the smile in their voice.

Subscribe to the Business Chemistry Blog

Get in touch

Suzanne Vickberg (aka Dr. Suz)

Suzanne Vickberg (aka Dr. Suz)

Research Lead | Deloitte LLP

Dr. Suz is a social-personality psychologist and a leading practitioner of Deloitte’s Business Chemistry, which she uses to guide clients as they explore how their work is shaped by the mix of individuals who make up a team. Previously serving in Deloitte’s Talent organization, since 2014 she’s been coaching leaders and teams in creating cultures that enable each member to thrive and make their best contribution. Along with her Deloitte Greenhouse colleague Kim Christfort, Suzanne co-authored the book Business Chemistry: Practical Magic for Crafting Powerful Work Relationships as well as a Harvard Business Review cover feature on the same topic. She also leads the Deloitte Greenhouse research program focused on Business Chemistry and is the primary author of the Business Chemistry blog. An “unapologetic introvert” and Business Chemistry Guardian-Dreamer, you will never-the-less often find her in front of a room, a camera, or a podcast microphone speaking about Business Chemistry. Suzanne is a University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate with an MBA from New York University’s Stern School of Business and a doctorate in Social-Personality Psychology from the Graduate Center at the City University of New York. She has lectured at Rutgers Business School and several colleges in the CUNY system, and before joining Deloitte in 2009, she gained experience in the health care and consulting fields. A mom of two teenagers, she maintains her native Minnesota roots and currently resides in New Jersey, where she volunteers for several local organizations with a focus on hunger relief.