How to avoid the hype around AI to build a more positive workplace

How to avoid the hype around AI to build a more positive workplace

Hype - the world is filled with it. And when it comes to Artificial Intelligence this is particularly focused on how it is going to revolutionise our world, but the reality isn’t quite what the PR would suggest.

No, we won’t be sitting next to robot colleagues doing backflips anytime soon. However, AI is already impacting our work as so much of it is hidden in our apps on our phone, for example. Fitness app and maps you might be encouraged to use at work for wellbeing, and you are probably using apps for your emails – these all use AI.

There is no question that AI will be influencing our work more so as a result of Covid-19 as more firms look to adopt technologies to enable work to continue. Our work with Robot Process Automation (RPA) businesses say that they are having the highest number of enquiries as a result of Covid.

Artificial Intelligence was a term adopted by scientists almost 60 years ago who were looking into how computers might mimic humans. Through initial fits and starts, the research and application of AI has had a huge boost in recent years – fuelled by access to vast data sets and computing brute force – all set to leap forward with the advent of technologies such as 5G and Quantum computing.

Exciting stuff and the potential is enormous. But many employees and leaders see AI as one technology, we need to be mindful that AI is a host of technologies and, for those of us in the people sector, we need to think what is on the near horizon and what kind of impact that will make.

The AI we see today includes things like AI in automation tools, which will reduce the time and inaccuracies in routine work (think about invoicing, purchasing databases, emails to clients for reminders on payments, doing a good received etc). This kind of work could take several people several days to complete. An RPA will whizz round these systems and complete tasks in a fraction of the time. Because of the AI algorithms in the RPA, it will learn from the data it gets in, in order to build and improve – and become even more efficient.

Other forms of AI such as Natural Language Processing (NLP) are already used in HR teams to enable faster document reading, e.g. in hiring processes. NLP can understand nuances in language so won’t make the mistake of just picking up the word ‘leader’ in a CV without reading the context and looking for suitable synonyms, and can also translate from other languages with an understanding of idioms and slang. There are many other forms of AI which include computer vision, generative adversarial networks, and more. The applications can produce a driverless car, a song recommendation or a smarter insurance quote.

The experience of lockdown has enabled workplaces to really look at adapting their business model to a more flexible, autonomous working world, and now they want other technologies to enable better, more engaging remote working. According to digital strategist Richard Foster-Fletcher there may well be a positive movement towards Augmented Reality to enter the workplace.

He argues that while Zoom and Teams have played an invaluable role in the move to managing work during a pandemic, we all feel that the weight of many, many video calls can leave us tired and somewhat disconnected. He suggests there are business such as Outer Realm who are helping lead the platform shift from 2D screens to immersive spatial computing in the Real Estate industry and could now turn this type of tech into workplaces.

It is suggested that new information, that can be digitally layered onto our world and virtual business meetings, could evolve using face and emotion scanning technology to represent you accurately as an avatar in the virtual meeting space creating co-presence and connecting. The suggestion is that the mind reacts well to these, and an abstract avatar is just as convincing as a real avatar.

The critical thing for an HR professional to understand is that AI can enable workers to thrive in a modern workplace. HR teams will need to prioritise the processes that specific AI technologies can make more efficient. Also, as with all tech, it’s neither a panacea or something that doesn’t need hours and hours of thinking on enabling a strategy to proceed. It needs a lot of time to develop and plan. For example, with RPA introduction, many staff who work on routine admin tasks can be redeployed into work that is more interactive and creative. But we need to recognise that many staff may indeed lose their posts. As such, the scarring of this loss needs to be understood and a strategy developed to mediate against it.

Also, a panacea of remote workers with VR and AR headsets may enable work to continue in an enjoyable way, but HR will have to develop methodologies of how to develop a sense of belonging and organisational culture with their remote employees. Not an easy task, but an essential one.

Dr Naeema Pasha currently leads on Professional Development, People & Future of Work in Henley and established World of Work (WOW) to explore future of work readiness.

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