Thanks AI, for Making us work more like a Human and NOT a Machine!

Hernan Ochoa

Picture this, the Chief Marketing Officer of your company sets up a meeting with you to strategize a new marketing campaign for the organization. In an effort to alleviate some of the losses from the previous online marketing campaign, you are appointed, as the head of digital marketing, to lead an industry research project to better understand your target audience. Though you are excited to implement a new marketing strategy, all you can think about is the drudgery that comes with it — collecting, entering and cleaning the data, and so on. Sure enough, the process consumes you — spending most of your day organizing the data and analyzing it so that you can finally get to the point where you can execute a strategy that will help the organization grow. Imagine how fulfilling it would be to skip all that, and get straight to the exciting part of applying the initiative to the bigger picture of the organization.

This is the case for most employees in organizations. In fact, over 40% of employees who took part in a survey indicated that they spend around a quarter of their work week on repetitive tasks. In another multi-national research study, it was found that these types of tasks add up to around 69 days of an employee’s working year. If that doesn’t raise your eyebrows, think of it in this perspective — the loss of productivity due to these redundant tasks comes at a yearly cost of around $5 trillion USD globally. It is worth mentioning that these figures only represent 11 countries and is focused on the service industry alone. Now, let’s set the business impact aside and talk about individual employees. Going on from these figures, an employee will spend 552 hours a year completing these tasks that lack intrinsic value. This figure presents a daunting reality for companies, as employees’ engagement and well-being partly depend on individuals feeling as if they take an active part in achieving the organization’s long term goal. The abundance of meaningless tasks that do not engage in higher-level thinking is one of the reasons only 25% of Canadians are engaged in their work.

The loss of productivity due to these redundant tasks comes at a yearly cost of around $5 trillion USD globally.

Now, what do you think your job would look like if you got rid of all that drudgery?

In the case of our fictitious head of digital marketing, it would mean his job would revolve around higher-level tasks, such as how the marketing campaign will be implemented, how success will be monitored, and how it will be tweaked based on feedback received. This is the world we want to move in when we talk about Artificial Intelligence (AI) in the workplace. Another example of how AI will be able to enhance the employee experience is through HR. Onboarding new employees can prove to be a mind-numbing process, as it entails a ghastly amount of paperwork, collaboration with multiple departments, back-and-fourths in communication to answer questions, amongst many other tasks which can make the whole process last several months. AI can play a huge role in this process by lessening the administrative burden of onboarding and by having the ability to execute the plan out of business hours. Imagine that your new hires could have a portal that takes them through the whole process (administrative, answering questions, getting permissions from other departments in one click, etc.) before their first day at work! From the employee’s perspective, they feel fully equipped to start working and also have the peace of mind that any questions can be quickly answered by chat boxes, instead of having to go through emails or meetings. However, what about the HR professional? At the end of the day, we’re talking about how AI affects all employees. Well, having all these repetitive tasks taken care of, means that HR has more time now to take care of the human side of onboarding, which is to coach new hires in their new position and offer any type of additional training they require, both of which, if you ask me, sound much better than constantly checking if the new employees are reading and signing all the required paperwork. The beauty of AI lies in this particular mindset — it is not a matter of thinking about machines versus humans, but instead, machines AND humans.

The abundance of meaningless tasks that do not engage in higher-level thinking is one of the reasons only 25% of Canadians are engaged in their work.

Are we afraid of AI?

As great as this sounds, the reality is that many businesses are reluctant to introduce such technologies into their organizations. A study showed that 70% of leaders in Asia acknowledge that they will feel the impacts of AI within the next couple of years and 80% say they are aware of the challenges and opportunities it presents. So, what’s the problem? It seems that leaders are aware of the imminence of such technologies, and are conscious about what opportunities and challenges these may bring. However, the implementation of these technologies is a different story; only 15% of leaders showed confidence in their ability to introduce AI into their organization. Part of the problem lies within certain misconceptions around AI in the workplace. A 2017 survey explored individuals’ views on the exponential rise of technology (specifically AI), and found that 72% of US adults show worry regarding robots and computers taking over certain jobs, while 33% express enthusiasm. Two issues stand out here.

  1. There is still a misconception that AI is here to replace human employees, and that the future of work revolves around every process being automated.
  2. Second, we must remember that at the end of the day, the introduction of AI into the workplace signals change for employees. As such, we must look at the psychology behind it and acknowledge that we, as we saw in our more recent article, are pre-wired to resist change — we strive for predictability and stability. Introducing AI into organizations entails a large effort by employees to rethink and redesign their role, learning new skills (especially soft skills which are exponentially growing in importance), and taking more responsibilities. We must remember that regardless of technology, change is something that is normally met with resistance.
it is not a matter of thinking about machines versus humans, but instead, machines AND humans.

Should we be afraid?

We’ve seen how straining repetitive tasks are for employees and organizations, how AI can enhance the employee experience, and how organizations are having a hard time introducing this technology into their organization, partly due to human resistance — but the question still stands, are people’s fear regarding the displacement of employees by AI warranted? The answer lies in what was previously mentioned in this article — it’s all about machine-human collaboration. An analysis by McKinsey showed that from the 2000 work activities across over 300 occupations studied, there are many categories of these activities that could be fully automated. Such activities include data collection and analysis, and physical work in highly predictable environments. However, only 5% of occupations were shown to have the potential to be fully automated. What is even more impressive is that by 2030, it is estimated that the changing nature of skills required in the workforce will mean that many jobs will be created in order to enhance this human-robot collaboration. In fact, 10% of these jobs created will be occupations that we cannot currently imagine. If this doesn’t convince you, just go back 10 years and think about all the occupations, for example, in the area of marketing. Although concepts such as Search Engine Optimization have existed since the early 90’s, we could have never imagined it creating as many careers and occupations as it does today. If history is a guide, then AI will not disappoint in creating careers that we currently cannot fathom.

As organizations, there are pressing issues that must be addressed before thinking about automating the majority of tasks. As previously mentioned, the human-robot collaboration will require a reshaping of skills at a massive scale. For companies, this means investing money and time into training their employees to feel confident about navigating this new world. However, job hopping is on trend now, and it doesn’t seem to be slowing down, so addressing issues such as retention now are even more critical. If employers seek to invest in their people’s skills, they must ensure that they keep their talent. Having said that, AI can present a beautiful opportunity, and a massive shift in how we think about work. With all the drudgery being weeded out by technology, all that is left for workers are more challenging tasks that require higher-order thinking, more human interaction and other soft skills, and also the ability to strategize at a higher degree. Finally, because automation will cut back time spent on meaningless tasks, this could carve a path for employees to put in more effort and time to pursue other personal passions or interests.

72% of US adults show worry regarding robots and computers taking over certain jobs

This is not to say that we should passively wait for this wave of technology to hit us. As employees and as leaders, we must proactively take the strides necessary to effectively introduce these technologies in a way that will not only enhance our bottom line, but also reshape the concept of work. In my next article, I will be discussing the practical steps to take so Stay tuned!

If history is a guide, then AI will not disappoint in creating careers that we currently cannot fathom

Hernan Ochoa is a researcher and consultant at Jalapeno Employee Engagement where he helps companies, especially small to mid-sized, reach their full potential by maximizing employee engagement. Using research-based action, he works hard to align employees’ core motivators to the company’s vision and values to ensure that individuals are engaged, and thus, working to their fullest potential. Hernan is currently completing his master’s in Industrial-Organizational Psychology, where his thesis is focused on the gap between emerging technologies and artificial intelligence, and companies’ preparedness to take on these technologies. He would ultimately like to see what cultural factors in organizations can be leveraged in order to introduce new technology with the least amount of resistance. When he’s not doing consulting work, Hernan enjoys playing the guitar and going up to Whistler in the winter to hit up the slopes.