AI and automation in the workplace — what do employers need to know?

Technology, such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine automation, is becoming increasingly common in the modern workplace. Ben McCarthy, employment law writer at Croner-i, argues that there are numerous benefits to introducing such systems but that it should be done carefully.

AI is a term generally used to refer to a simulation of processes of human intelligence by machines or computer systems. It works by imitating the natural learning processes a human brain would undergo to develop fast and efficient ways of approaching various tasks. In an age when technology continues to develop rapidly, employers are starting to appreciate the increased output and efficiency that an AI system can provide. After all, if company processes become outdated, employers risk losing out to business competitors. While AI can cause employees to be concerned, conjuring up visions of robots coming for their jobs, it can also be a positive development for a company and its staff if integrated properly.

Using AI and automation at work

Arguably, this form of technology works better when used to enhance current roles and not to replace them. This is because employees can utilise AI in order to become more productive, allowing the system to undertake simpler tasks while the human workers focus on more complicated areas. Some high-profile examples are listed below.

  • Automation and robots

    Automation operates by undertaking jobs typically undertaken by human workers through the use of pre-programmed machines. For example, production lines can use automated machinery to assist in packaging products, with the technology able to do this key role at a faster rate than individual employees. Automation can therefore help businesses to save administrative costs and increase working hours.

  • Data and analytic software Employers can use this software to collect and compile large amounts of data in short periods of time, removing the risk of human error. This can be useful in evaluating key company information, such as sales figures, and determining which areas the business should focus on for its ongoing development. It can also help in the management of staff by identifying issues which suggests they may need further support and training.

  • Customer support chatbots Companies can use instant messaging services or chatbots to provide automated responses to clients. In this way, the programme can offer quick answers to simpler questions received from customers, allowing company employees to put more time into complex queries and improve overall service levels.

  • Applicant tracking software (ATS) Employers can use ATS programmes when recruiting for a new role to assist them in identifying and screening potential candidates according to the requirements of a job. Through this, management can save time that would otherwise be spent scouring CVs. They can also work to avoid instances of discrimination; the programmes will be purely focused on the attributes of a candidate and not particular characteristics.

  • Voice recognition technology Voice recognition can be a useful tool for employees, especially those who suffer from disabilities that make it difficult, painful or impossible to type. It can help those with motor, cognitive or visual impairments and therefore open up job opportunities to individuals that may not have previously been an option for them.

Introducing AI and automation at work

A common argument against incorporating AI into companies is the worry that it will cause jobs to disappear as employers can utilise a more cost effective method that does not involve payment of the National Minimum Wage. There is also the risk that an increased use of AI could lead to restructures and redundancies for members of a workforce who undertake monotonous work which can be automated. While a recent report by PWC predicted that increased automation could boost productivity and provide more job opportunities, it also showed that 30% of jobs in Britain were potentially under threat from increased technology. That said, when incorporated correctly, AI can also produce new job opportunities, such as technology and maintenance-related jobs that require specific skill-sets. For example, a company that increasingly relies on an automated customer service system will need to seek specialist assistance in its maintenance and continued development, which could be a new job role for individuals to fill.

In approaching how to properly integrate AI systems, employers should carefully plan the best areas in which they could make a significant difference. Certain employees may struggle to get used to these systems, especially if they are used to doing things in a certain way. It is therefore important that all employees are fully trained in properly using the new systems and offered further support if necessary. This can be done through the use of dedicated training sessions, either delivered internally or by external providers of the product in question, alongside holding regular meetings with employees after the introduction of the new system in order to ensure there are no issues that need addressing. Employers should always be careful of the dangers of discrimination and not make any decisions based upon an individual’s age. Although they may worry that older employees could struggle to get used to the new systems, this is not necessarily the case. Remember that an age discrimination claim can result in unlimited compensation from the employment tribunal.

It is yet to be fully established whether AI could truly replace the decision-making skills of a person, and employers should be wary of becoming too reliant upon it. If an automated system is consistently used to undertake certain tasks in a business it could cause the skills and abilities of employees to be affected. This is because they will rarely need to spend time doing, or learning to do, certain job-related activities anymore. In this situation, if the AI system fails and employees cannot work without it, overall company productivity could be significantly affected as a result.

Conclusion

Advancements in technology have played a significant role in making business more efficient and have certainly added to the flexibility that so many employees are looking for in their working lives. That said, employers should approach this issue carefully and make sure they consider all variables when planning how they would introduce technology into their company. Certain forms of AI and automation can be expensive and it must be carefully assessed whether pursuing these options could prove beneficial or cause more issues in the long run.