Desk workers are enthused about AI, but what are they going to do next? Slack data updates adoption realities

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan February 27, 2024
Summary:
New data from Workplace Lab at Slack paints an interesting picture of assumptions around AI's impact on the future of work.

bored at work

If you’re stuck in a boring, repetitive, ‘could do this with my eyes shut’ job, then the prospect of having a lot of your day-to-day tedium being taken off your hands by AI tech might well sound rather appealing. And sure enough, that’s one of the key findings to come out of the latest survey of desk workers around the globe conducted by the Workplace Lab at Slack. 

There’s been a lot of debate around the likely impact of AI and generative AI on the workplace, specifically whether it will be a job killer or a job enabler. Last year, Avanade made the eye-catching prediction that blue and white collar jobs would vanish over time, replaced by so-called no collar roles. Meanwhile just last month at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, the CEOs of Sanofi and L’Oréal urged enterprises to think in terms of AI augmenting the future of work, not destroying it. Nicolas Hieronimus, Chief Executive Officer at L’Oréal, was particularly optimistic: 

Short term, [AI is] a job creator. Half of the hirings we've been doing over the last three years has been either related to data or to AI. So right now it's creating jobs. Mid-term, I see my teams, they're all working too much and they're desperately hoping to have some sort of solution that helps them crunch the data, come up with better PowerPoints and not waste hours doing them. There may be some industries or some type of jobs where it's going to be a bit more radical, but I see this as a real way to free time and probably get our employees to have a better work life balance.

Reality check 

The reality is that we still don’t know what the long term impact of AI will be on the workplace. What we do know is that the genie’s out of the bottle and isn’t going back in. That being the case, what’s interesting for now is to track the progress being made/not being made around who is using AI and automation today and how that is affecting workplace productivity, as well as workers attitudes and expectations. 

The Slack survey is based on responses from more than 10,000 desk workers around the planet. While some degree of regional variation might be expected in its findings, there’s actually not as much as I’d imagined going in. Globally, workplace adoption of AI tools, as of last month, had accelerated 24% over the previous quarter, with one in four desk workers reporting they have tried AI tools for work compared to one in five back in September last year. In the US, 26% of respondents have used AI in the workplace, while in the UK that percentage rises to 28%, both up from September levels of 19%. 

While that’s still a minority of desk workers, among those who fall into this group, there’s overwhelming support (80%) for the theory that this tech is improving productivity, with the greatest value creation being seen around writing assistance, automating workflows, and summarizing content. Both US and UK respondents back in September ranked research as one of the top three benefits, but UK data this time has replaced that with summary creation while the US continues to cite research.

Bored

Again, a minority of desk workers are enthusiastic about AI’s potential to improve their on-the-job effectiveness, with 42% saying they are excited about the idea of AI handling tasks from their current job - that breaks down to 40% in the US and 41% in the US. Who are they? Well, if you spend nearly two-thirds of the working day - more than 60% - on tasks that are low-value, repetitive or lack meaningful contribution, you are 2.4x more likely to be very excited about how AI might replace tasks compared to those who spend less than 20% of their day on low-value tasks. So, if you’re bored at work, then AI is a bright and shiny thing that might lead to a better life ahead. Once the bots have taken over your daily routine, your real potential will inevitably be recognized and realized, right? 

But what then do you do at your desk?  Some 42% of global respondents say they’re “excited “for AI and automation to handle tasks from their current job, while nearly a third (31%) are neutral and over a quarter (27%) are concerned. What happens next surely depends on how well your organization is ready to (a) find new roles and (b) up-skill existing personnel to adapt to the new AI era?

That, in turn, requires executive buy-in and investment. So how far are they committed to such actions? Unsurprisingly given the current hype climate, nearly all executives polled feel pressure to integrate AI tools into their organization, with half of all executives saying they feel a high degree of urgency to incorporate AI tools. What do they reckon they’re going to get from this? Well, it seems that the wish list is increased efficiency and productivity of employees (38%), data-driven decision-making (35%), innovation of products and services (34%), and cost reductions (33%).

All of that sounds terrific. So, what’s in the way of realizing those benefits? According to the survey, the top concerns are data security and privacy (44%),  AI reliability and accuracy (36%), lack of expertise and skill gap among staff (25%) ethical and compliance issues (17%), customer trust and acceptance (17%), and cost of implementation and maintenance (16%).

But if execs want to get past this stage, they need to step up in terms of telling their teams what they expect. The study finds that companies with defined guidelines on how to use AI at work are seeing the strongest uptake among employees. Desk workers at companies that have issued guidelines for how AI can be used are five to six times more likely to have experimented with AI tools, compared to desk workers whose companies have no guidelines around AI usage.

So that’s OK, isn’t it? Simple. Indeed, a majority (81%) of executives report feeling “some urgency” to incorporate generative AI into their organizations, with 50% reporting a high degree of urgency. But - and you knew there was a but coming - close to half of all respondents (43%) say they’ve received no guidance from their leaders or organization on how to use AI tools at work. 

My take

Next time, in three months, this may be a different picture. But the critical element here is surely around up-skilling and future planning for new roles for workers. That ‘augmentation’ argument rings out loud and true. Otherwise, I’m seeing a lot of bored desk workers being those proverbial turkeys who can’t wait for Thanksgiving to come around.

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