Artificial Intelligence is rapidly making its way into the workplace. Enterprise use of AI alone has grown over 270% in the past four years, touching all aspects of business from staff recruitment to consumer insights and marketing. One of the greatest reasons behind this drive lies in AI’s huge potential to increase employee productivity. While we shouldn’t view AI as a silver bullet for success, there’s certainly a lot to get excited about on this front. Let’s take a closer look at AI’s productive gains and what businesses need to be mindful of in order to enjoy their full effect.
Mentioning AI and the workplace often comes loaded with fear – particularly for job security. Until recently, people predicted that the automation brought by AI would render many jobs redundant, replacing as many as half of all jobs by 2033. But experts in the field have now completely re-evaluated this perspective. Rather replacing jobs, automation is far more likely to target specific tasks within a role – particularly repetitive ones we would consider to be “low-value”. And the figures support this view. Since 2013, the number of jobs that use AI has increased by 450%, but this has not led to a mass drop in employment. Instead, it has fundamentally changed the types of jobs that are being done. Industry has also come to share this outlook, with PWC finding that 72% of business decision makers consider AI as a key tool for allowing humans to focus on more meaningful work. For example, AI is most frequently used within business to detect and deter security intrusions. Rather than making the jobs of IT security professionals redundant, these tools are being used to enhance human capabilities in the face of increasingly more complicated hacks and attacks. While some jobs are certainly more likely to be replaced by AI, overwhelmingly it is tasks within a role – not entire jobs – that will be automated in the short- to medium-term.
With this in mind, AI should be embraced for the productive savings that it can offer us. In particular, AI should be used in the areas where it is superior to humans: complex calculations, routine tasks and pattern recognition. Through embracing these strengths, AI offers the potential to fundamentally alter the type of work we undertake. In practice, many companies have already been developing productivity-enhancing AI. For example, Deloitte has created an AI that programme can scan complicated legal documents and pull out the relevant information. By removing the wasted search time that was previously required, this technology speeds up and simplifies the process of contract negotiation. In doing so, it frees employees to focus on tasks that add value to the business and make better use of their skills.
Whilst AI can directly improve employee productivity, it also comes with some important indirect benefits. Perhaps the greatest of these relates to increasing work satisfaction and employee happiness, which numerous studies have shown to be essential to peak productive performance. The most obvious way it does this is by taking on the mundane duties that employees resent; the routine admin and coordination tasks that keep us busy without fulfilling us. More than just being dissatisfied with their job, bored employees are far more likely to quit their roles and have lower levels of productivity. So, AI can directly help reduce the meaningless elements of work that antagonize and disengage employees. But it can also be directly employed for the purpose of making employees happier. For example, AI tools have been developed to analyze the keywords and emojis sent on Slack within a workplace, in order to gauge the level of employee engagement. AI programmes can be used to understand issues with staff morale, and provide managers with nudge suggestions to improve staff satisfaction.
Many people believe accessing the productive benefits of AI requires an expensive new infrastructure. But in reality, there are several routes to AI which don’t involve financial risk or long-term commitment.
There are a number of ‘lightweight’ AI applications on the market that can be easily integrated into current business practices. These out-the-box AI solutions are usually developed to address specific business needs – instead of promising to solve all your problems, they usually perform one task extremely well. Being easily downloaded onto any computer, they let businesses apply automation across different parts of their operation without committing to an infrastructure overhaul. There’s an AI tool to expedite almost any business function you can think of – from automating invoicing to getting AI to create your time sheets. They often involve little to no learning curve, which improves your chances of AI being adopted properly – and thus reaping the benefits of it. These tools are designed with usability at front and centre, designed to integrate seamlessly into an employee’s workflow. If they are too confusing or fiddly for people to use, the companies developing them wouldn’t last long!
Of course, for more heavy-weight adoption of AI, a word of caution is needed. The technology is, in itself, not a silver bullet for creating a productive workforce. In order to ensure that the benefits of AI can be felt, understanding the technical capabilities of staff and how to upskill them for the new technologies is essential.If workers aren’t consulted and trained properly, they might see the new technology as adding another layer of complexity to their job. As such, they will be reluctant to use them and undermine the potential benefits. This isn’t a rare occurrence, in fact, only a quarter of mid-size businesses who implement digital workplace strategies achieve success. Accordingly, ensuring that adequate training is provided is a prerequisite for successful digital transformations and technology upgrades.
In certain situations, introducing AI can actually hinder employee productivity. Wherever it is used to control and monitor employees instead of empowering them, distrust and a loss of autonomy shortly follow. There are numerous examples of creepy AI being developed to manage staff that could have exactly this effect. One programme, developed by Cogito, is used to tell customer service representatives if they are speaking too quickly or if they sound tired. These statistics are than collated and viewable by employee supervisors. Treating employees like machines will not improve productivity, it will stop it in its tracks and breed resentment. Ultimately, AI holds huge potential to improve employee productivity, but it can’t be realized without ensuring staff are properly equipped to use it and understand how it works to benefit them.