Source: Angus Loten

Giving workers new tech tools won’t do much good if they don’t help them do their jobs better, executives say.

Paperwork, data entry and other repetitive tasks are common complaints around the workplace. But for corporate technology teams looking to deploy chatbots, virtual assistants or robots to ease the load, identifying these tasks—and matching them with effective technology—can be a challenge.

Chief information officers and other senior tech managers have never had greater access to digital tools and capabilities designed to help employees with their daily jobs, known as digital workplaces. Yet digitizing tasks can backfire if managers neglect to match technology with workers’ needs, taking a toll on productivity.

“Robotic solutions can fail when there isn’t a deep understanding of the operational model, the business needs and all of the complexities involved,” said Max Pedró, co-founder and president of Takeoff Technologies Inc., a Waltham, Mass.-based firm that makes robots to fill grocery store orders for pickup.

Mr. Pedró said robots can perform a task flawlessly in an isolated IT lab, but implementing the technology in a “living ecosystem is a completely different story,” he said.

In a survey last year by PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP of more than 10,000 workers in a range of industries world-wide, 90% of C-suite executives said they paid attention to employee needs when introducing new technology. Only about half of their workers agreed, the survey found.

Researchers said a negative employee experience with new tech tools can have a ripple effect across a business—and the economy—in terms of lost productivity.

Gartner Inc. has estimated that only a fraction of digital workplace projects currently in place will succeed in improving the way workers do their jobs over the next two years.

Rob LoCascio, chief executive of LivePerson , a New York-based software firm that makes an artificial-intelligence-powered messaging platform for large corporate customers, said one solution is to have employees develop their own tools.

“IT pet projects can go nowhere and die on the vine,” Mr. LoCascio adds.

He said a recent tool created by a human resources employee at LivePerson was designed to handle a daily barrage of calls and emails from co-workers about time off, benefits and other queries. Though she was acting like “a human FAQ”, the IT team might never have identified this part of her job as a pain point that could be better handled by software, Mr. LoCascio said.

Emily Wang, the head of product at Spoke, said IT leaders need to interview internal teams to better understand which chunks of time they spend on noncreative, nonstrategic, repetitive projects. The San Francisco-based company has developed an artificial-intelligence-powered help desk that answers employee questions about payroll, benefits, policies and IT issues.

“Software is really good at detail-oriented, repetitive tasks, and documenting processes, and reporting metrics,” Ms. Wang said, “while we humans remain much better at judgment calls, creativity, and empathy.”

She said digital workplace rollouts fail for two key reasons: when the teams meant to use the tool aren’t involved in developing them, or when the goals of rolling out the new tools aren’t clearly communicated.

PricewaterhouseCoopers has opted to give every employee a crash course in digital technology, said Joe Atkinson, the firm’s chief digital officer. One goal of the initiative is to enable workers to pinpoint unique parts of their jobs that can best be tackled by software, he said.

Giving employees a better grasp of how digital tools work has also helped tech teams find areas that can be improved with technology, he added: “It gives us an unfiltered indicator of where there’s friction in the system that needs to be fixed.”