Your AI Efforts Won’t Succeed Unless They Benefit Employees

By Jacques Bughin and James Manyika
November 3, 2020

There are several ways for companies to manage the risks of a technology transition by focusing on welfare and well-being.

Automation and artificial intelligence are often perceived by companies who leverage them as an important source of labor productivity. Many workers in such companies, however, tend to see the adoption of these and other technologies as putting their jobs in jeopardy or creating more stressful workplaces.

For companies eager to invest in AI and automation, the fears around adoption could be material, with heightened risk aversion creating unintended negative consequences. What if workers fear the future so much that this changes their behavior as consumers and leads them to spend less? If stress levels rise to such a high level as workers interact with new smart machines, could labor productivity suffer significantly, even going so far as to eliminate the benefit of automation and workplace changes?

On the other hand, the dual approach of focusing deployment on innovation and proactively managing the transition, through retraining and other steps to enhance worker mobility, could have a significant upside. Doing good for society in the AI era implies that implementing such a positive technology strategy can be good business.

There are several ways for companies to manage the risks of a technology transition by focusing on welfare and well-being. They include:

ENERGIZING WORKPLACE WELL-BEING THROUGH AI. Many companies are focusing on reducing work overload, including rote tasks in call centers, or expanding business in a way that adds to employment — for example through new product innovation or by entering new markets. Companies use sensors and AI and analytics for predictive maintenance and this also helps avoid risks of human accidents and injuries. Some companies use AI as a tool to improve employees’ well-being — and see a strong return on investment on such spending.

IMPROVING WORKERS’ SKILLS USING AI AND CO-BOTS. In the workplace of the future, digital skills, higher cognitive skills and social and emotional skills will be in greater demand. AT&T has invested $1 billion in a sweeping program to retrain its workforce with digital skills. Walmart has also been investing large amounts, up to $2.7 billion since 2015, in training programs such its Walmart Academy and its Pathways program. It has brought AI-based cobots, collaborative robotics, into stores that “train” retail workers on how to collaborate with them.

BOOSTING SALARIES AND INCENTIVES. Amazon recently raised its minimum wage by a material amount and Facebook has also raised its wages. In general, wage increases can be a strong signal. Higher wages and training may encourage better-earning employees to buy more from Amazon in the medium-term.

BE MORE PROACTIVE IN LOCAL COMMUNITIES. Some companies are focusing on spurring greater involvement with local communities, including through public-private partnerships. Gap, for example, provides job skills to the disadvantaged, among others. Google’s “Grow with Google” initiative gives access to training and tools to different communities, including military spouses, small business owners, teachers and startups.

Copyright 2019 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.

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