How to tackle your team’s fears over AI

People’s anxieties about losing their jobs to technology are becoming increasingly well founded. Any business adopting AI must therefore manage the process with great sensitivity

The World Economic Forum’s The Future of Jobs Report 2020 estimates that 85 million jobs could be “displaced” by AI before 2025. Whether you treat the technology with suspicion or embrace it wholeheartedly, one thing’s for certain: it’s here to stay. 

“We do predict a change in many, if not most, jobs with the adoption of AI,” says Naeema Pasha, co-author of Futureproof Your Career. “We’ll see more of it at work. There’ll be more use of its facial-recognition capabilities, for instance, while conversation tools such as Amazon’s Alexa will move beyond our kitchens into our workplaces. We’ll use AI-based payment systems. As such, more and more roles that we might identify as ‘administrative’ will become AI-based.”

While such predictions may reinforce people’s fears that a soulless robotic workforce will render the human touch obsolete, the same World Economic Forum report also suggests that AI could contribute towards the creation of 97 million jobs. 

While the uptake of AI by employers may feel daunting for many people, the new career opportunities it’s likely to create should be exciting, according to Pasha. 

“We’re in for a big change,” she predicts. “Business leaders are already encountering the new job clusters, fuelled partly by the rise of the robots. We’re seeing an increase in the number of jobs that require human ingenuity and creativity, not only in technology but also in human development and social impact. Over the past year we’ve seen a 75% increase in the number of jobs in diversity, for instance. And then there’s the need for green skills and the rise of roles such as chief climate officer. Business leaders have a chance to remould workplaces, building human, social and environmental goals into their purpose and strategy statements.”

The adoption of AI could enable people to remove dull, routine and perhaps even dangerous tasks from their to-do lists, Pasha notes. “As the technology becomes more integrated, employees will require training to use it. They will also need to use skills such as creative and critical thinking for technology adoption. We need to look at newer job functions that are more human – and, possibly, more interesting.”

This is an opportunity both to redesign work so that it improves the quality of jobs and to consider how staff can be supported to advance their careers

Hayfa Mohdzaini is a senior research adviser in data, technology and AI at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, a professional association for HR practitioners. Her advice to any business leader who suspects that employees are more wary than excited about their firm’s impending adoption of AI is to make it clear how the technology could make their working lives easier. 

“Show people how the introduction of AI will benefit them,” she says. “If it is taking over work, what new tasks would those affected then be expected to do? Do they have the right skills and are these tasks aligned with their career aspirations? This is an opportunity both to redesign work so that it improves the quality of jobs and to consider how staff can be supported to advance their careers.”

Moneypenny, a provider of outsourced customer communications, has been using AI software as a service (SaaS) “for years”, but began introducing its own deep learning systems in 2020, says its chief technology officer, Pete Hanlon. The company employs about 850 personal assistants, who handle more than 20 million calls, live chats and digital communications a year on behalf of 21,000 businesses in the UK and the US.

“Our challenge was to unlock the speech-based conversations we have each day to gain insight, allowing us to help our PAs serve our customers’ customers better,” he explains. “It was impractical to convert calls to text manually, as we handle hundreds of thousands of hours of calls every day. It was also prohibitively costly to use SaaS provided by the large tech companies. Instead, we focused on training our own speech-to-text models, fine-tuned to work with our PAs’ voices.”

Moneypenny also uses deep learning systems to “determine intent and sentiment”. This helps the company to ensure quality and enables staff to handle customers’ calls more quickly and efficiently. Common conversations can be identified, giving the company scope to improve the FAQ guidance it provides. 

“We’re integrating these technologies into our in-house systems to help our PAs, pulling up relevant information as calls are happening,” Hanlon says.

Mohdzaini would advise any business leader sensing resistance in the workforce to the introduction of AI to keep three principles in mind. They are: minimise uncertainty, get employees involved in the process and show them how they can benefit from the changes.

“An HR director once told me that sometimes it’s a tough message to give, but people will look back and thank you for being honest,” she says. “It might even improve your company’s brand as a good employer.”

Mohdzaini stresses that implementing AI needs to be done sensitively. Remember that change will always make people feel uncomfortable. Don’t allow rumours about redundancy to swirl. Instead, have “honest two-way conversations with staff as early as possible and give them opportunities to shape how the change will affect them,” she suggests. “While you may not be able to implement all of their suggestions, you can acknowledge these and show which ones you’re planning to implement now or later. Keep your communication channels open.”

At Moneypenny, employees are kept firmly in the loop about developments. Hanlon reports that their responses to its adoption of AI have generally been positive. 

“We issue regular business updates outlining our work in this area and why we’re doing it,” he says. “We feel that people are the key and that technology can help to empower them. This is not about replacing people. This is about making them the best they can be.”