Artificial intelligence (AI)’s impact on the workplace is currently being driven by two competing narratives: on one hand, it will increase worker productivity and enhance an individual’s value to the organization; on the other, it will kill jobs.
Until recently, both of these views were largely speculative. But now that the technology is finally making its way into production environments, we can get enough of a glimpse of its impact on the workforce to conclude … that both views are probably correct.
As with most questions of this sort, the answer to whether AI is having a positive or negative effect on the workplace depends on who you ask and what kind of work it is expected to perform.
In general, AI is starting to prove its worth in completing basic tasks of low to moderate production value but not in higher-level strategic or complex analytical functions.
A recent survey by Stanford University and MIT of more than 5,000 customer support agents showed that adopting AI tools resulted in a 14% productivity improvement, measured by the number of issues resolved per hour.
However, the research team was quick to note that the highest gains, some 34%, were reported by novice and low-skilled workers. In contrast, more experienced professionals reported little or no benefit —and, in fact, saw AI as more of an annoyance than a helper.
While part of this discrepancy may result from the current rudimentary state of AI training — simpler jobs are easier to learn, after all — cultural issues might also play a role. Younger, less experienced workers may be more accepting of AI than older workers and may have a better grasp on how it functions and how to make the best use of it.
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Executives Like the Lure of AI
In general, however, executives are more impressed with AI than average workers, but whether this is due to actual experience with the technology or wishful thinking is unclear.
A recent report from Boston Consulting Group based on surveys of more than 13,000 people around the world showed that 62% of the C-suite is optimistic about AI, compared to 42% of frontline workers.
The report also says employees who use AI regularly are nearly twice as likely to be optimistic than those who do not (62% to 36%). However, this could be a statistical anomaly, considering that 80% of executives report being regular users. In comparison, only 20% of frontline users say the same.
Workers Are Still Concerned
While regular use of AI may be in its infancy among average workers, occasional use on the sly seems to be quite common.
According to background check firm Checkr, 85% of U.S. workers have used AI to complete their work tasks at some point, with nearly 70% afraid to tell their bosses about it for fear of getting fired.
However, only part of this fear stems from the idea that AI can summarily replace workers. In some cases, using unauthorized or non-secure software could result in termination. In contrast, in others, the fear of hostility from fellow employees fostered a higher degree of secrecy.
While no one wants to lose their job to AI, many workers seem to be OK with cutting back their hours – even if this comes with a pay cut.
More than half of those surveyed by Checkr, in fact, said they would welcome a four-day workweek if AI allowed them to complete their tasks in less time. Younger workers were even willing to take a 15% reduction in salary provided AI took on more of their workload.
Despite all the uncertainty that AI brings to the work environment, most workers seem willing to at least give it a try. The roadblock, however, is that few organizations are providing the necessary training or guidance to use it effectively.
Lack of Guidance
A survey of more than 4,500 knowledge workers by business platform developer Asana showed that only 24% have received any sort of guidance for AI use. This leaves the majority of employees in the dark when trying to make productive use of the AI tools they’ve been given.
Some 26%, in fact, worry that they will be viewed as lazy by pushing their work responsibilities onto a machine, while 20% say it makes them feel like outright frauds.
This could prove to be a problem not just for the successful deployment of AI but in acquiring the right talent in the future. Nearly 40% of job-seekers identify AI training as a key factor in their decision to accept a job, while almost 60% say a lack of transparency regarding the use of AI could be a deal-breaker.
Even at this point, it is still hard to tell if these concerns represent significant problems with AI in the workplace or if they are simple growing pains.
And while it’s fair to say that as experience with the technology grows, so will acceptance, the jury is still out as to whether AI can bring meaningful benefits to workflows and the bottom line.
As deployments gain steam over the coming year, however, organizations should finally get the hard data they need to determine if AI has proven its worth, or at least can do so as it learns the ways of the business model.