Artificial intelligence (AI) could provide a boost to workforce productivity, but organisations need to build their employees’ trust in these technologies and upskill staff appropriately if they are to take full advantage of the benefits.
“AI is already being used to complete vital tasks in workplaces across a range of industries, but it could be used to boost productivity for the workforce generally,” said managing director of recruiting firm Hays in Australia and New Zealand Nick Deligiannis.
PwC analysis suggests that AI could contribute USD 15.7 trillion to the global economy by 2030, with USD 6.6 trillion of this figure coming from increased productivity. These gains are expected to come from the automation of processes, coupled with AI technologies augmenting the existing labour force.
There are already examples of where AI is starting to have this sort of impact. Two examples are shared in the latest Hays Journal, which explores this issue: fund managers are using AI to track media or social media stories about particular companies to glean important information that could impact share prices, while GP are trialling an AI system that conducts an initial triage of patients to determine who requires primary care.
AI drives demand for more highly-skilled professionals
While some basic positions are likely to be taken over by machines, AI is also creating a need for more highly-skilled professionals.
Associate Professor in Artificial Intelligence at the University of Bath Joanna Bryson gives the example of a bank that is using chatbots to deal with basic customer enquiries.
“You would think that would reduce the number of people managing the telephones, but what they found was that customers felt more engaged and ended up contacting the bank more,” she said. “The other interesting problem was that the chatbots were solving all the easy problems.”
Managing director ANZ of Nuance Communications Robert Schwarz agreed: “Virtual assistants allow organisations to provide their customers with fast and accurate self-service, which is often more convenient than available alternatives. This also reduces call centre costs and has the effect of freeing up agents to undertake more value-adding tasks that are more complex in nature.”
“With AI taking over routine or repetitive tasks, employees can focus on the more exciting aspects of their job or even move into other areas of the business,” said Mr Deligiannis. “Upskilling will be essential to ensure people become more highly-capable experts in their field.”
HR must build trust and alleviate fears
While AI will undoubtedly make some jobs easier, it can also increase fears around career security within the workforce.
Yet a 2018 study, Is automation labour displacing? Productivity growth, employment, and the labour share by David Autor and Anna Salomons found that AI has had a positive effect on aggregate employment.
“HR will need to support the implementation of AI and ensure it is used responsibly while alleviating the perceived threat that many workers see it posing to their livelihood,” says Mr Deligiannis. “Part of this will involve talking about the rationale behind it, and explaining how it can help individuals perform their job, and potentially develop their career through learning new skills.”
This is supported by marketing leader for cognitive process transformation at IBM Global Business Services Owen Tebbutt who said: “The more open an organisation can be about why and where it’s using these technologies, the less concerned employees will be. It’s got to be based around this idea of empowerment. It’s not there to replace jobs but to make your job more impactful, enjoyable and productive. HR needs to be very positive about some of the things this technology can do to make people more productive, happy and fulfilled.”
In the longer term, there can be little doubt that AI will play a more significant role in how organisations are set up and run in the coming years. “A human being is only capable of taking in so much, so we are going to need help sorting through that, and that’s the biggest area where AI can help organisations or people,” says Mr Tebbutt. “The choice is quite stark: we can either drown in data or find a way to benefit clients and the workforce.”
According to Hays, the latter is possible so long as employers are open about the introduction of AI and offer training to employees where needed. In this way, AI will ultimately create a more engaged and productive workforce.