Has AI received employee approval?

One of the big factors to consider with an AI strategy is how to integrate technology into the business in a way that employees find palatable

The impact of artificial intelligence has been mooted for years, but 2023 has seen it truly break through the public’s consciousness. The launch of OpenAI’s ChatGPT has pushed generative AI and its applications onto the radar of people who hadn’t considered such technology before, with increasingly bizarre results. 

From the wedding ceremony officiated by ChatGPT to a hit song using AI-created voices mimicking popular artists Drake and The Weeknd, deep fake images of Donald Trump being arrested to the chatbot that ‘wanted to be human’, suddenly AI is everywhere. 

This applies to our workplaces too. The pandemic accelerated the digitisation of customer and supply chain interactions and internal operations by three to four years, with the share of digital products offered by companies accelerating by a staggering seven years, according to a McKinsey & Co report. Keeping up with the pace of digital transformation means employers are increasingly turning to AI solutions that save time, grow productivity and support business strategy. 

In fact, an overwhelming majority of CFOs expect to see ‘significant growth’ in capital spending on AI over the next five years, with 67% also believing that AI adoption will aid productivity and growth, according to a survey by Deloitte earlier this year. 

What they don’t agree on is the impact on the jobs market, with respondents equally divided between those who think AI will increase job numbers and those that believe it will reduce them. A Goldman Sachs report in March went further, suggesting that AI could replace the equivalent of 300 million full-time jobs

At the very least, the impact of AI means that large parts of our workforce will need to develop new skills and face changing job roles. But with no clear answer on how AI will ultimately affect our jobs, how do current employees view AI in the workplace?

AI attitudes

A recent survey by Ipsos and the cloud communications platform provider RingCentral examined the attitudes of 1,000 UK workers aged between 21-65 towards AI and work. It found an overall positive attitude, with more than a third (35%) believing AI will have a positive impact on work compared to 22% for negative and 43% who were unsure. When segmented to workers aged under 35, positive attitudes rose to 49% with just 19% negative. 

“I think we’re becoming a lot more curious about AI. While ChatGPT is generating a lot of noise, people are starting to see the benefits of using it and digital assistants like Siri or Amazon Alexa on a daily basis. This makes them more interested in how AI can also help them in the workplace, rather than being a threat, ” says Steven Rafferty, VP international at RingCentral. 

Changing demographics in our workplace is also having an impact. Gen Z – those born between 1997 and 2012 – are expected to make up 27% of the workforce in OECD countries by 2025. Such digital natives will expect employers to provide cutting-edge workplace technology to support their work.

RingCentral’s research supports this idea. The younger an employee, the more excited they feel about using AI tools and software. Those in the age group 21-34 rated 30% excited at using AI and just 27% nervous, with those aged between 55-65 just 12% excited and 31% nervous. 

Avoiding a ‘generation gap’ when it comes to implementing new technology in the workplace requires education around the benefits of AI and ongoing training on how to use technology, argues Rafferty.

“As millennials and Gen Zers become leaders and managers, there is a huge opportunity for businesses to put in AI technologies to attract younger workers. However, to avoid segmentation between younger and older workers, you need to spend time training people on the benefits of AI to show it is user-friendly and of value,” he adds. 

For Rafferty, this comes down to demonstrating the upsides of technology in a person’s day-to-day job, whether it’s AI, software or communication tools. RingCentral’s forecasting system provides sales representatives with information based on past deals. Rather than expecting employees to dig out their own statistics, the system gives them a percentage rating on how likely a deal is to close with tasks they can do to increase the likelihood of the deal going through. 

“Once people start seeing the benefits, they don’t care whether it’s AI or something else. It’s just computers doing clever things,” says Rafferty. 

Despite this, many of us are hardwired to resist change. Though relatively few respondents were worried about AI taking over their jobs (15%), nearly half (42%) said they would prefer human-to-human interaction over AI support at work. Decision-makers (40%) were much more likely to believe AI would make their jobs easier than non-decision-makers (21%), showing the dividing line between those looking for efficiencies and those who actually carry out the work. And more than half (59%) of employees at all levels would worry at least a little bit about job security if AI played a bigger role in their workplace. 

Philip Torr is a computer scientist and professor of engineering science at the University of Oxford. He believes it is a natural human reaction to fear new technology.

“In the initial days of the automobile, people were so afraid of cars that they made a law that a man would have to walk in front of the car with a red flag. Victorians believed that fast trains could cause a variety of problems to the body. I do think there are dangers from the misuse of AI, but like the car or the train, the potential benefits outweigh the risks,” says Torr. 

“I think a lot of the current fear frenzy about AI stems from this basic human insecurity regarding the new, but we must be careful that this fear doesn’t stop us embracing something that will be enormously beneficial,” he adds. 

New tech, new skills

The key to success for organisations will be demonstrating how AI will support employees to develop new skills and be more strategic at work. Yes, artificial intelligence and automation will replace some of a worker’s tasks but it should free them up to work on more relationship-based work and learning new skills. 

RingCentral’s survey asked respondents what excited them most about AI. Freeing up time (28%), learning new skills (23%) and being creative (18%) were three of the top five answers, suggesting that employees value the personal impact AI has on their work, not the efficiencies it brings to processes and business strategy. 

“If you take control of your own education, then AI can be really good for you. Clear out the menial tasks and embrace AI to develop,” says Rafferty. 

Perhaps that’s for the future. Right now, it is managers and leaders who are more likely to find value in the capabilities offered by AI and automation. Nearly half (44%) of line workers were unsure of the value of current AI capabilities compared to just over a quarter (17%) of decision-makers. 

Administrative tools like live transcription, virtual assistants and meeting summaries were seen as some of the most valuable applications to decision-makers, with AI’s capabilities in digital communication highly sought after in the age of flexible working. 

“We’re seeing AI being used in three main ways [when it comes to video communication]. One is AI-generated meeting summaries, which allows people to miss the start of meetings or leave halfway and still get full transcripts or video summaries and outcomes. Second is live transcription, where AI automatically transcribes words spoken in real time, which is great for those on the move. Last is noise reduction, which filters out noise like dogs barking or traffic and improves audio quality,” says Rafferty. 

“For the future, virtual assistants will become more prevalent. Imagine a virtual assistant being able to pull together a meeting you’ve just had, take the meeting notes and produce your first cut of a presentation. That is half a day’s work turned into two minutes.”

Find out more about how RingCentral supports hybrid working