AI in the workplace: evolution or revolution?

There was a show-stopping moment at the AI safety summit held at Bletchley Park at the beginning of November.  In response to the UK Prime Minister's questions, Elon Musk issued a sensational prediction for the future, saying “There will come a point where no job is needed”.  While this dystopian view does not represent a consensus on the impact of AI, there can be little doubt that the adoption of AI is gaining momentum, fuelling changes in working practices.

In many workplaces, the future has already arrived.  It was reported last month that Amazon is trialling the use of humanoid robots in its warehouses.  Digit, a 175 cm tall robot, is able to grasp and lift items and walk forwards, backwards and sideways while carrying objects.  Its first task is to shift empty boxes.  Amazon stated that its aim in implementing AI is to eliminate menial, mundane and repetitive tasks.  

However, it is not only low-skilled tasks which appear to be at risk of displacement by AI.  During the summer of 2023, Hollywood screenwriters went on strike in part due to the impact that AI is having on their role.  The writers were seeking assurances that generative AI tools, such as ChatGPT, would not be used to replace them, and would instead be limited to researching and facilitating script ideas.

Most employers are still at the very beginning of what is likely to be a long journey to full implementation of AI.  In a recent client survey, we looked at how AI is beginning to introduce change.

Use of generative AI chatbots

ChatGPT was launched 12 months ago and rapidly became the fastest growing consumer software application in history.   The results of our survey showed that use of chatbots for work purposes is now commonplace.  44% of you indicated that chatbots were being used in a formal capacity at work.  

However, we are aware that opinion is divided and that many organisations, mindful of the risks of using chatbots, have chosen to block access to the application on work devices.  Despite this almost 80% of you believed that informal use of chatbots for work purposes was taking place.  The unsanctioned use of chatbots raises issues of trust and confidence and enhances the risks associated with using the application without appropriate guardrails in place, including factual inaccuracies, plagiarism and confidentiality breaches.

Generative AI policies

One way of addressing these risks is to have a clear workplace policy on the use of generative AI which specifies which platforms are permitted, explains the need to declare when the chatbot has been used and stresses the importance of checking the output.  Over a third of you had already introduced a workplace policy and a further third were considering doing so.  Given the accessibility of the technology, it is worth taking a pragmatic approach, bearing in mind that restrictive policies preventing use could lead to employees undertaking covert usage.

The future of AI in the workplace

As regards the future impact of AI, there was a clear consensus: almost 90% of you predicted that AI will bring change, whether in the form of new working techniques, developments in the scope of roles or wider reorganisation.  

While Elon Musk’s vision of the future is likely to be some way off, there are steps that employers can take now to mitigate risk early:

  • Communication:  One of the many challenges presented by AI is that as the technology is moving so quickly, many organisations are yet to develop a clear strategy as to how it can best be deployed.  Nonetheless keeping staff informed about your approach to AI, pilot schemes, potential use cases and longer-term plans will help foster a culture of partnership around implementation of AI in the workplace.
  • Consultation:  For employers with an existing staff forum, it is worth considering whether AI falls within the consultation scope and whether communication needs to be undertaken via that process.  If, in the longer term, AI has the potential to lead to changes in terms and conditions which would trigger a formal process, consider whether it is worth setting up a consultation body at this stage.
  • Education: Training is critical.  Although the technology is not difficult, not all employees will be comfortable using chatbots.  Making training available will help create a level playing field in terms of employee performance, ensuring that employees do not get left behind.