Australian leaders are more optimistic about artificial intelligence at work than their global counterparts, according to a recent report. However, employee concerns about AI still pose obstacles to innovation. How can HR help build a more AI-positive culture?
A recent global study of over 11,000 leaders and employees has revealed that positive attitudes towards artificial intelligence at work are more commonly held by business leaders, while employees further down the ranks remain concerned about its potential risks.
The research, conducted late last year by Zoom, found that an astounding 93 per cent of leaders in Australia are feeling optimistic about AI adoption and its potential to enhance business operations, compared to 88 per cent of global leaders.
In contrast, a similar proportion of employees (89 per cent) expressed concerns about their job security as a result of AI adoption.
According to Bede Hackney, Head of Australia and New Zealand at Zoom, it’s a promising sign that Australian leaders are taking a forward-thinking approach to this rapidly evolving technology. With that said, harnessing its full potential will require them to overcome employees’ trepidation and work towards building a more AI-positive culture.
“Australia is technology-forward, and we’re traditionally an early adopter,” he says. “But it’s also pretty obvious when you talk to the general public that there’s a concern that AI will replace or remove jobs.
“With every major technology breakthrough since the Industrial Revolution, we’ve worried about what the impact on [job security] is going to be. But every single time, what we have ended up doing is moving the human workforce to higher-value tasks.”
Leaders fear falling behind in AI adoption
It’s clear from Zoom’s findings that the rapid proliferation of generative AI during the past year is already reaping significant benefits for employers.
Among those whose teams use AI at work, the majority of Australian leaders agreed their teams completed tasks faster (88 per cent), were more productive (84 per cent) and delivered higher quality work (85 per cent).
“Depending on whose research you look at, the forecasts are somewhere between $50 billion and $150 billion incremental value to the Australian economy by 2030,” says Hackney. “It’s a huge opportunity. It’s going to create more roles, it’s going to create new roles and it will unlock potential.”
With the pace of AI development showing no signs of slowing down, leaders are also conscious that failing to leverage this technology could put them at an economic disadvantage; 76 per cent of leaders surveyed agreed that delaying AI introduction creates a risk of their business falling behind.
According to Hackney, this fear is a legitimate one; looking purely at this technology’s potential to shave time off employees’ daily tasks, the business case for an AI-positive culture is undeniable.
“Knowledge workers spend as much as 60 per cent of their time doing busywork, or ‘work about work’,” he says. “And I think that problem has only gotten worse in the past couple of years as we’ve moved to a hybrid workforce, [which can] amplify that collaboration or personal productivity drain.”
“It’s a huge opportunity. It’s going to create more roles, it’s going to create new roles and it will unlock potential.” – Bede Hackney, Head of Australia and New Zealand at Zoom
He offers an example of simple ways AI can combat this issue by freeing up more time for meaningful, value-adding work.
“[Let’s say] it’s the first day back from Christmas holiday, and you look at the hundreds of messages [in your inbox] and you think, ‘Oh my god, how am I ever gonna get through those?’ You’ve got two options: you either don’t get to them, which is what most of us do, or you spend days and weeks trying to get through it.
“Wouldn’t it be great if your AI companion could summarise those threads that have 30 new messages and provide you a summary that you can read in one minute, instead of spending 20 minutes going through them and hearing about the weather on the third of January?”
Encouraging employees to engage and experiment with these types of tools not only creates significant time and resource savings, but also paves the way for a more positive overall approach to AI in the workplace, he says.
How to encourage positive attitudes to artificial intelligence
The disparity between leaders’ attitudes to AI and that of their employees is a difficult gap to close; the aspects of AI that form the business case for its implementation are often the same aspects that drive concerns from employees about their job security.
To overcome this difficulty, Hackney offers some key steps employers can take to ensure the rollout of this technology drives excitement and innovation rather than reluctance or resistance.
1. Use AI at a macro and micro level
One likely source of leaders’ optimism around AI is its ability to provide quick insights from huge data sets to help inform strategic planning, says Hackney. AI can perform almost instant analysis of information sets such as customer interactions or employee feedback, making big-picture strategising far easier for those at the top of an organisation.
However, he warns against overlooking the smaller everyday benefits that automation can offer to employees, and failing to communicate how these capabilities will benefit them.
“I think one of the tasks that HR leaders can help with is to encourage business leaders to also think about the personal productivity benefits and to balance their AI messaging across both,” he says. “What can we achieve at a macro level, but also, what can we achieve at a personal or a micro level?”
Encouraging the use of AI on a day-to-day basis for smaller, menial tasks such as summarising meetings or organising information can also help it feel less intimidating to employees, as well as creating ‘quick wins’ that keep the momentum going as AI is rolled out on a broader scale.
“A lot of those big AI outcomes that people talk about are driven by putting platforms in place, and it can take 12, 18, 24 months to get that platform in place and get your data ready to deliver the outcome. Your business doesn’t have that sort of patience, so you need to be delivering value drops along the way.”
2. Democratise the use of AI
When it comes to keeping up with the pace of development in AI, business leaders are not the only ones concerned about falling behind their competitors; there is a clear imperative for employees themselves to gain AI skills in order to thrive in the future jobs market.
According to the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report 2023, AI and machine learning specialists represent the fastest-growing role over the next few years, with a predicted 40 per cent increase in the number of jobs in this field by 2027.
For this reason, it’s crucial that AI technologies and training are made available to all employees rather than a select few, says Hackney.
“Some technology providers are charging a lot of money for AI tools, and what that’s doing is having companies think about who they enable from an AI perspective,” he says.
“So, now we’re looking at our entire workforce and saying, ‘These are our most expensive knowledge workers, and so maybe we’ll invest in AI tools for those people.’ [By doing that], we’re creating this AI divide where you’ve got employees that have those great AI experiences, who are going to be more AI-forward, versus people who don’t have those tools.”
Democratising the use of AI across the organisation will go a long way in allaying employee concerns about job security, given that the continuous use of this technology will both equip them with essential skills and demonstrate its value as a helpful companion rather than a potential replacement for their role.
3. Maintain transparency
Job security is not the only source of apprehension that employers need to manage when it comes to AI; many, including the Australian Human Rights Commission, have expressed concern about the potential for this technology to cause privacy issues and generate biased or inaccurate output.
As a result, a transparent and up-to-date approach to the risks of AI is imperative, says Hackney.
“The AI market is moving at an incredible pace…. And whether you’re talking about education frameworks or ethical frameworks, in real terms, I think we’re building those as we go, and we’re maybe a step or two behind the technology,” he says.
“But businesses can’t afford to [stay there]. Because, if you go a little slower and let the education and the ethical frameworks catch up, the risk of falling behind your competitors is a real and significant threat. So open communication and transparency are super important.”
While employers are often conscious of the privacy concerns held by their customers, they should also remember employees have the same fears about their data being used without permission. As a result of this, it’s crucial to clearly communicate whether or not an AI tool is being trained on data relating to their workforce.
Mitigating concerns around bias will require leaders to stress the importance of a human eye on every output generated by the technology, he says.
“AI is not a destination. It’s not a ‘one-and-done’. You’ve got to know that when you put that model into production, you’ve got to allow for testing, retesting and retraining. From the very start of the development cycle, they need to think about how they are going to test for those biases in an ongoing fashion.”
By taking a transparent and egalitarian approach to the rollout of AI, HR can help to ensure the promise of AI innovation is realised while also addressing the legitimate concerns of their workforce.
Learn more about the possibilities and risks of AI by accessing AHRI’s on-demand webinar, Generative AI For HR, via the member portal. Visit the webinars homepage for more information.