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Reducing Employee Anxiety Over Artificial Intelligence

Is AI causing unease amongst your workforce? Here’s how to help your employees come to terms with the future.

Ever since the Industrial Age, machines have replaced jobs and people. It’s only natural that workers today are uneasy about the growing influence of artificial intelligence in the workplace.

But while it’s certain that AI is going to replace some jobs, it won’t replace ALL jobs. McKinsey says there are new jobs we haven’t yet imagined, which by 2030 could amount for as much as 10% of all jobs.

That doesn’t magically make your employee fears evaporate, though. As a manager or human resources expert, you need to make your workers comfortable with the future, yet most managers aren’t yet ready for this conversation.

In order to help your employees through this latest cycle of technical innovation, you’ll need to understand it yourself. You have to understand what AI is, and its potential impact on your business and your team. Educate yourself on AI in your industry, and get some free advice from software vendors by listening to their sales pitches.

Acknowledge The Fear

You can start the conversation by explaining to your employees how AI will look in your industry, how it’s going to benefit them, and how it may affect them if its potential negative outcomes aren’t proactively addressed.

AI is not HAL 9000, motivated by self-preservation. It’s really just an algorithm that looks at data. Jobs will evolve as human work blends with algorithms in acknowledgement of AI’s capabilities and limitations. It will make some jobs better, freeing people from repetitive tasks to handle more stimulating work. And there will remain functions requiring emotional intelligence and other human factors that machines will never do well.

My company recently commissioned a survey of over 4,200 employed adults in the U.S., Germany, the U.K., Japan, Australia, and New Zealand. Our data reveals that 69% of workers aren’t currently using AI-based technology tools. Therefore, it’s unsurprising that most employees don’t feel that AI has had an impact on their job … so far. However, 21%fear AI could take their job within the next decade.

Demystify The Technology

The earlier you have meaningful, honest conversations around how AI may change your industry, demystifying it with simple and relatable terms, the more quickly you can put people at ease about the skills they need to develop to remain relevant.

While AI will not impact all industries to the same degree, or on the same timetable, it’s important for employers to explore how AI can level up your team and enhance your processes. Find some good examples and brainstorm with your employees how the use of AI within your company could benefit them from a personal perspective, while openly recognizing that you understand the unknown can be a little scary.

For example, within the HR department, you don’t want recruiters to fixate on how AI-powered software could replace them through automated candidate sourcing. Instead, you want recruiters to ask themselves, “how can I leverage AI to help me do my job better?” HR already uses tools that provide matches related to keywords. An AI-enabled résumé parser to make predictions, for example, is simply the next generation of that tool set. AI also offers an advantage in recruiting when it’s trained to alleviate faulty human bias and promote a diverse slate of candidates.

Fight The Inertia

The 2019 World Bank report on The Changing Nature of Work finds that technology may destroy low-paying, lower-skilled jobs, but it also creates new jobs demanding more skills, for more pay. The accumulation of new skills can be incremental. Futurist Byron Reese commented, “The question to ask is not whether the people whose jobs are replaced by automation can do the new jobs. The question is, can everybody do a job a little bit harder than the one they’re doing now?”

Our survey indicated that only 47% of workers believe they possess the skills required for the AI-enabled workplace, with a whopping 83% agreeing employers should have primary responsibility for providing training to meet this challenge.

How might technology change the way your team approaches work? If you can conceive of ways AI will (or could) eliminate rote employee tasks, consider the training you can provide to prepare your team for the future. The World Economic Forum’s 2018 Future of Jobs report indicates the human qualities that a machine can’t replicate are trending in value for 2022 — skills such as creativity, leadership and emotional intelligence. Examine how you can uplevel your team and leverage your people in different capacities.

For example, consider the popular recent movie Hidden Figures, about the space race. The protagonists worried that the installation of an IBM mainframe at NASA in 1961 would make their jobs redundant.

“This IBM’s gonna put us all out of work.”

And their response to the challenge?

“There’s only one thing to do: Learn all we can. Make ourselves valuable. Somewhere down the line, a human being’s gonna have to push the buttons.”

Mitigate The Changes

We’re nowhere near realizing the vision of AI. It’s the iceberg that’s only 10 percent visible. But we can be certain that changes are coming, even if we don’t know exactly what they will bring.

Many companies like mine have established guidelines around ethical AI usage. Even if you’re not a technology vendor, consider developing and documenting your philosophy as AI has the potential for cross-industry disruption. This is not a one-time conversation before filing your policy in the archive. It will need to evolve as AI makes greater inroads, providing a jumping-off point for meaningful discussions with employees.

Hear your employees’ concerns and bring them into solution-oriented conversations. The path to reducing fear and loathing of AI in the workplace is through demystification, change management, action, and education.

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