Technology is often a double edged sword – it offers incredible, game-changing benefits, but has its drawbacks too. As automation in the workplace increases, more and more workers are concerned about the effect AI is going to have on their jobs and employment in general. For managers, this is somewhat of a conundrum. To turn your back on technological progress is not commercially feasible, but to ignore the concerns of your staff is just as problematic. So, how should managers discuss the issue of AI with their workforce?
There is no doubt AI will have an impact
There can be no doubt that AI is going to have an enormous effect on workplaces. The Reform think tank estimates that at least 250,000 public sector workers could be replaced by computers in the next 15 years.
In some respects, greater automation is a society-wide issue that may eventually result in radical changes to the way we conceive of work, employment, and the way we earn an income. This can be seen in the early experiments with Universal Basic Income taking place in a number of progressive countries. However, in the short term, this is an issue that will have to be tackled by managers on the front line.
One of the key ways managers can open a discourse with staff about the potential effects of AI, is to present them with opportunities to prepare themselves. This means helping them to develop transferable skills and to specialise in ways that may prove beneficial in the future.
By providing training opportunities, managers demonstrate their concern for their employees, whilst also offering practical solutions. If a manager can help staff to develop their abilities in those areas of work that still require the nuanced touch of a human agent, they’ll drastically improve their chances of retaining work in the future.
In the short term, AI may even generate jobs. If a manager is able to reskill their workforce, there’s an enormous amount of work to be done preparing the workplace for AI and automation. A clear example of this is the newly developed role of Data Protection Officer.
Communicate with staff
Just as important as developing key skills is maintaining open communication channels. Managers need to be open, honest and accessible. Being truthful about the potential effects of AI will give staff the time to ready themselves for the changes and is likely to be appreciated further down the line.
It’s also important not resort to an entirely negative message. There are still many complex tasks that are currently only actionable by human agents, and this is likely to remain the case for the foreseeable future. Many cases of vulnerable people not being able to get through and speak to an agent can be addressed with the support of AI picking up the simple enquiries.
Finally, managers need to include their staff in the discussion and preparation process. Otherwise, the feeling of powerlessness amongst staff will only be exacerbated. Staff will also be able to benefit a business with their own expertise and specialist knowledge; AI will, in most cases, be picking up aspects of work that staff are already aware need to be undertaken to improve service delivery. It’s also worth bearing in mind that AI systems still need to be developed, implemented and maintained – this in itself will generate a number of jobs.
There can be no doubt that AI will have far-reaching effects on the workplace in the coming years. For many employees, this is an understandably concerning phenomenon. Managers will not be able to reverse technological development, but they are in a position to assist their employees as best they can. A large part of this will involve listening to the specific concerns of their staff and working to alleviate them. Managers have a responsibility to their workforce and can demonstrate they understand this by providing opportunities that could help members of staff move on to new things, should their jobs be lost.