Friend or foe? A question for AI in the workspace

Corbin Cerny explores managers' crucial role in integrating AI, balancing automation with the augmentation of human work, and shaping a future where technology and employees thrive together.

The emergence of AI in the workplace is a transformative force, a topic sparking both pessimism and optimism. According to a recent CNBC SurveyMonkey Workforce survey of workers across the United States, 60% of employees regularly using AI tools at work worry about its impact on their jobs. While AI is often perceived as a 'job killer' in the workforce, managers express less concern. Only 38% of managers and higher officers share their employees' apprehensions, according to the same survey. However, the ongoing debate over AI as either a job killer or a job enhancer ultimately rests in the hands of the decision-makers – the managers.

A management challenge has emerged where AI can be integrated to augment or automate employees’ work. It’s a decision that almost every employer will eventually face. While prevailing sentiment often concludes that AI adoption will mean job loss across service sectors once considered secure, there is evidence to the contrary. Instead of ushering in excessive automation, AI tools hold greater returns on investment in augmenting rather than replacing workers. Adopting AI in the workflow to aid employees has been shown to increase productivity. Businesses may then benefit from the Jevons Paradox, where increased efficiency often leads to higher demand for input, such as human labour, in the case of AI tools.

Managers should also reflect on how AI will augment their own performance, particularly their role in shaping a healthy company culture. In a recent survey of North American CEOs and CFOs, nearly 80% identified corporate culture among the top five factors influencing their company's financial performance. However, 84% felt their company’s culture fell short. AI is a game-changer in how managers evaluate the health of workplace culture by capturing a clearer picture of the true sentiments of employees. The company satisfaction survey, a warhorse for many in management seeking to address culture concerns, is limited by information quality and employee engagement. AI can effortlessly gather, analyse, and categorise employee testimonials, which are far more detailed and nuanced than rigid surveys. For almost half a decade, AI tools have shaped managerial performance, for instance, by simplifying the recruiting and screening process to enhancing feedback procedures for employee performance reviews. Every new application's advanced development increases the coverage of AI tools in the workplace and exposes reservations about future implementation.

Some businesses tackle the AI question head-on by establishing specific positions tasked with integrating and overseeing AI usage. Between 2022 and 2023, the number of users with the title of chief or vice president of AI on Glassdoor, the company-review platform, jumped from 19 to 122. The rise of AI executive roles is driven by the desire to harness the technology effectively, and companies could bolster their image with the public and their employees, who would like to see the private sector responding to concerns over AI. But these positions are more than just a gesture of goodwill to a concerned workforce. Chief AI officers may be the ultimate authority, striking a delicate balance between augmentation and automation.

No matter the approach businesses take, AI is coming to the workplace, like it or not. Its effective integration by management requires a thoughtful approach to balancing automation with preserving meaningful, fulfilling work for employees. Those businesses looking to succeed must ask the hard questions now and plan accordingly or risk being caught on the back foot by the AI revolution.

Teaser photo by Carl Heyerdahl on Unsplash