Artificial intelligence is changing the way we work and, depending on the day, workers are either anxious about being displaced or encouraged about the benefits AI can bring to the office and their lives. (Oftentimes, it's both.)
A recent report also suggests that AI-enabled platforms are changing employees' relationships, specifically how much workers trust their managers to do certain tasks — and that could be a good thing.
According to a new AI at Work survey conducted by Oracle and human-resources advisory and research firm Future Workplace, 57% of U.S. workers said they would trust a robot, over their boss, to answer certain questions and complete workplace to-dos.
Emily He, senior vice president of human capital management at Oracle, tells CNBC Make It that robots in these scenarios generally refer to digital assistant platforms (think: Siri, Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant).The most common ways workers prefer to tap AI is to get unbiased information, maintain work schedules and solve specific problems. That could mean launching a chatbot (an AI-powered service that allows users to ask questions and receive answers) to answer questions around company policies, health insurance information, remaining vacation days, conflict resolution and so on, she says.
On the other hand, human bosses are still most trusted to understand employees' feelings, coach workers and create or promote a work culture. Here are four ways this evolving dynamic could be a good thing for workers and managers alike.
Managers may be workers' No. 1 resource to answer questions about company policies, benefits, schedules and the like, but they don't necessarily have all the information at their fingertips. Machines often do.
"Whether it's digging for information or using logic to problem-solve, machines are better at these tasks," He says.
According to Oracle and Future Workplace's survey of 8,370 global workers, human resources leaders were most optimistic about the adoption of AI in the workplace, compared to managers and workers surveyed. Investing in an HR chatbot could empower employees to get more accurate information faster than relying on their manager — or themselves — to dig through the company intranet to find an answer.
The trade-off of using machines to solve for routine tasks is that employees have more time do to work around brainstorming and strategy-building. That's where a focus shift to soft skills could win out.
"I think in the future, things like creativity and critical thinking are going to be more prized than more of the traditional hard skills," He says.
A more human approach to business may give companies and workers a competitive edge. Tech billionaire Elon Musk himself has said "AI will make jobs kind of pointless," especially as machines become complex enough to start writing their own software, but he says businesses with a human element will have greater staying power. A report from IBM indicates other executives count soft skills like flexibility, time management, teamwork and communication as some of the most important skills in the workforce today.
Dan Schawbel, research director at Future Workplace, tells CNBC Make It that employees from the survey seem to be generally accepting of AI adoption in the workplace. "It makes their jobs more efficient, which frees up time to produce more emotional work with empathy and care," Schawbel says.
He agrees: "I think machines and those digital systems play a key role in helping us bring humanity back to work."
Workers still turn to human managers to be able to understand their employees' feelings, provide career coaching and create or promote a work culture. Managers would do well to embrace this coaching role, considering opportunities for growth and workplace culture are just as important — if not more so, in some cases — as pay in impacting employee satisfaction.
A generational shift could also be at play in the way workers trust managers with their professional development.
"It's been widely documented that the younger generation wants a different type of management or leadership," He says, about millennials, currently the largest generation of workers, and the oldest cohorts of Generation Z entering the labor force. "They want managers to care about them, coach them, give them continuous feedback and provide personal advice to them when it comes to career growth."
"In many ways, this technology is giving humans the opportunity to be a different type of manager," she continues. "Instead of being this traditional leader and giving your employees orders or delegating tasks, now employees are expecting managers to play more of a coach role."
Whether it's using a digital assistant to deliver weather updates or an app to navigate a morning commute, people are using AI-enabled tech in their day-to-day lives, and they're coming to expect the same integration when they get to the office, too.
After all, technology has played a large part in blurring the lines between the home and work, Schawbel explains, and more workers are adopting the attitude of bringing their whole selves to the office. "Part of why people want to do that is that people are working more hours," he says. "Because of technology, we're always working — at night, weekends, on vacation — so they're taking who they are into the workplace whether they like it or not. And so we have to have leaders be more accepting and empathetic and connect with people on a human level."
Some of the biggest barriers to adoption are worker concerns around security, privacy and ease of use. Schawbel says companies should be sure to address these issues by being transparent in the ways AI is being adopted around the workplace, and how data is both provided to employees and collected from them when interacting with tech.
General wariness of AI in the workplace isn't unfounded: A 2017 McKinsey & Company report indicates that by 2030, as many as 800 million global workers could be replaced at work by robots. Fields comprised of more readily-automated tasks, like office support, service-industry roles and physical labor are among the jobs most at-risk of displacement, according to the analysis.
That said, robots in the workplace aren't going away, and companies stand to benefit most if they adopt AI intentionally.
"As a company, if you want to retain top performers and to create that awesome employer brand," He says, "this is something employers have to do."
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