Shouldn’t work be a joy?

Automation in the workplace

To reach our full potential at work, we could use some help from AI

Technology is supposed to be a force for good in our lives, to help us rise up and achieve more than we could on our own. This is easiest to see in the context where it should help us the most: the world of work. Reports suggest that around 71% of workers in the U.S. are disengaged, and 18% of those are actively disengaged at their place of work. One can only assume that statistics are similar in other countries.

I assert that a major reason for these figures is that we still work like it’s the 19th century. The processes and principles upon which most of our businesses run were designed in the 1800s, and rather than throw out the orthodoxies about how we work, we have used technology to speed things up. Technology has become the enforcer, the guard in a prison that we have created for ourselves.

Take mobile devices for example. While we used to be able to leave work behind after clocking off, our phones ensure that work follows us beyond the typical workday and the walls of the office into our personal lives and even our weekends. Rather than using it as a liberating force for good, we have enslaved ourselves with technology. It’s becoming part of the problem that is preventing us from achieving our potential.

Adapting to a new way of working

In a world where more than 40% of the workforce will be contract labor by 2020, where five generations will be working side by side in organisations, and where technology is finding its way into every aspect of our lives, we’re faced with an unsustainable future if we keep doing things like they were done in Victorian times.

The gift of technology is to enable us to do things differently. With advances in technology comes the opportunity to help us all live more fulfilling, more human lives while achieving more than we possibly could alone — and we need to use technology and machine learning to overcome our ingrained biases and limitations.

With artificial intelligence we can:

· Make better judgements by using machines’ ability to understand issues systemically. The human brain has limited ability to appreciate systemic effects, which leads to poor judgments — we can trace climate change and the financial market crash in 2008 to this very human failing.

· Make accurate predictions about what will happen in complex real-world situations.

· For the first time in history, make a fundamental shift in our relationship with technology, from technology-literate humans to human-literate technology. In the past, we had to learn the language of the machines, which buttons to press, which code to write. Now they can aid us by communicating in a human way and help us have a more personable connection to one another.

· Automate busy work that consumes so much of our time.

· Help us overcome the limits of memory and attention.

All of this should free us to focus on the human aspects of work, asking the right questions, making new meaning and forming meaningful relationships.

Let me illustrate further. Imagine David, a 30-something insurance broker. David is with one of his clients, and his personal assistant messages him saying he has another meeting in 20 minutes, but he is too far away to make it across town in time. The assistant then offers him ways to resolve the problem by looking at the calendars of those that will be in the meeting, and offers new times and suggested locations.

David makes his choice swiftly and discreetly, knowing that all of the communications will be taken care of by his assistant, and he can focus on the conversation he’s currently having.

In another scenario, David needs to guide his team through an unfamiliar process, and fortunately his assistant knows which steps to take and can book the necessary meetings, fill out forms or take actions on his behalf. Unprompted, David’s assistant also offers him relevant information so that David doesn’t need to search through servers and online systems to find the relevant documents he needs.

The truth is that David’s assistant isn’t a person, but an AI service which appears in various forms and through different touch points: his mobile device, on public screens, via voice, or via social channels. With this sort of help, David can have more fulfilling experiences with his team, as well as being more effective in his job.

We should not look at automation and machine learning as something that will rise to take our jobs, but embrace it as something that will help us be better at what we do. This does come with a radical re-imagining of the workplace and creating organisations that are set up for nimble change — what we call a Living Business — but with the right AI, we can all focus more on the person-to-person connections and achieving our full potential at work.