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Meet Quark, HR’s COVID-19 question chatbot


In the past six weeks, the COVID-19 pandemic has seen the way we communicate and exchange at CERN shift from a well-established “in-person” meeting and coffee culture to the remote and virtual. Since CERN entered safe mode, not a day goes by without the Vidyo/Zoom/Skype or other virtual meet up, in addition to the emails, WhatsApp’s and various other messaging systems to keep connections thriving between colleagues.

This unprecedented situation characterised by uncertainty has seen the need to respond to the many and diverse questions that arise for every one of us, across diverse themes and subjects.

The central point is the dedicated COVID-19 HSE website and the dedicated FAQ, which is regularly updated and complemented. In April, this took on a new dimension, with Quark the chatbot joining the question response effort.

James Purvis, Head of the HR Department is particularly pleased with this innovation which was developed and implemented in a very short timeframe. “The Chinese word for crisis is frequently invoked as being composed of two characters: one representing danger and the other representing opportunity. Whilst a large part of HR was hard at work on the risk management aspects of the pandemic, we also used this as an opportunity to innovate.  COVID-19 generated a huge amount of questions ranging from site access to medical care to teleworking. HR documented all the answers in an FAQ, and in parallel we “trained” a chatbot to answer them in a more interactive way”.

Quark answers questions in both English and French. The team behind it monitors the questions as well as the answers Quark provides and for those questions that cannot be answered, they are redirected to the Service Desk, and the answer is in-turn evaluated for inclusion by ‘feeding’ Quark with the updated input.

Since it was deployed on the HSE website on 6 April, Quark has answered some 330 questions, with a response rate of 93%. Answers can be rated and the feedback thus received allows a continuous improvement cycle to better train Quark in providing the right and timely answer.

The most frequent question recently received is ‘’When can we return to CERN?’’. So will the progressive return to site see Quark put out of business? James Purvis sees this again as an opportunity. “Today Quark is doing their best to answer your COVID-19 related HR questions, but in the future it could be trained to answer general HR-related questions. Imagine the time it could save in circumventing the need to read extensive documentation pages, search for rules, regulations, circulars or memos: just ask Quark”.