Navigating the impact of AI on work: challenges, opportunities, and the human touch

20 March 2024. Published by Patrick Brodie, Partner

The fear of job losses because of technology and automation, including artificial intelligence, has been with us since the 1960s. For some time, academics have predicted the decline of routine, rules-based and process-driven roles.

Originally published by The HR World on March 20, 2024.

Indeed, research within the last decade (and especially over the last year or so) has sounded ever more loudly the call that tasks and processes will be replaced by AI. Studies suggest that with the right combination of technologies most tasks and roles are – to varying degrees – susceptible to automation.

Our thoughts, typically, turn to tasks that are routine and repetitive and where it would be better for technology to absorb this work, freeing people up for more challenging and rewarding jobs. However, with the rise of generative AI and increasingly sophisticated machine learning, many non-routine, creative and knowledge-based tasks – which, until recently, were seen as the preserve of humans and out of reach of the machines – will be capable of AI replication. 

Against this backdrop of rapid faceless technological change, the absence of regulation, economic uncertainty and the apparent pursuit of profit, the fear of many (especially if a positive counter vision is not provided) is that AI is all-consuming in its ability to change lives and take jobs. The language of an existential risk is prevalent. 

Andrew Bailey, the governor of the Bank of England, has looked to change this narrative by advancing a more optimistic outlook, observing that throughout history economies have adapted and new roles created. He might have had in mind that over the course of the second industrial revolution, new jobs emerged to replace those lost to mass production: in 1900 more than 40 per cent of the workforce was employed in agriculture; now it is 2 per cent.

As AI becomes an increasing feature of a company's operational capabilities, workers will want to know what this means for their future. If employees don't understand this (especially if they don't have control over its adoption and effects), then anxiety about long-term employment and economic insecurity grows. In turn, leadership teams will be worried about the mental health of their people. There will be many reasons for this, including:

  • If the impact of AI on an organisation is not understood by workforces, this risks building communal vulnerability with all its very human negative side effects – anxiety, fear, distraction and anger.
  • If AI removes the routine tasks (with an opportunity, dare it be whispered, to slow down) with the consequence that roles become more complex, complicated and ever-more challenging, when does a person reflect and rest? And without that rest, how do employees keep going at this increasing pace?
  • If companies maintain their hybrid and flexible working arrangements, supported by AI and technology (and there are good reasons that they should, but that is a discussion for another day) there is a risk of further isolation for some.

Do you remember those wind-up swimmer bath toys? The mechanism was tightened and the toy was put in the water. After a minute or so, it slowed down. So, it was just wound up again and put back in the bath. This was repeated. The toy always broke. If we had been more thoughtful about the swimmer's capacity to keep going, the outcome would have been different.

However, there is hope. The solution is within us. Our unique human capacity for empathy, sympathy, kindness (even directness) will become more important, especially for leaders. It is leaders who must increasingly look to rely on their emotional intelligence to communicate a clear vision of the future, emphasising ambition but at the same time appreciating the concerns of their workforces.

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