Employees worldwide show 'cautious optimism' about artificial intelligence

A new study indicates the main concern is a lack of transparency from employers.

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Employees worldwide for the most part are cautiously optimistic when it comes to artificial intelligence (AI) in the workplace, yet many admit a lack of transparency from their employers is a primary driver of fear and concern, according to a new study released by research firm Coleman Parkes Research and The Workforce Institute at human capital management company Kronos Inc.

The companies between November 2017 and January 2018 surveyed nearly 3,000 employees in eight countries for the report, "Engaging Opportunity: Working Smarter with AI," and found that about four out of five see significant opportunity for AI to create a more engaging and empowering workplace experience.

On the negative side, about one third of the workers (34 percent) expressed concern that AI could someday replace them altogether.

A majority of the employees say they would welcome AI if it simplified or automated time-consuming internal processes, helped better balance their workload, increased fairness in subjective decisions, or that ensured managers made better choices affecting individual employees.

More than half (58 percent) say their organizations have yet to discuss the potential impact of AI on their workforce with employees. However, about two thirds say they would feel more comfortable if employers were more transparent about what the future might hold.

Apparently the US is the most secretive of the countries in which the survey was conducted, with 67 percent of the respondents reporting they have no knowledge of their organization's plans for AI. Employees in Canada (66 percent) and the UK (62 percent) are similarly in the dark, the report said.

Some US industries are more transparent than others. Companies in financial services/banking (38 percent), manufacturing (35 percent), and logistics/transportation (27 percent) are already discussing AI's future impact on the workforce with employees.

With regard to the age of employees and attitudes toward AI, there's clearly a generation gap. Globally, 88 percent of younger employees think AI can improve their job in some manner. But 70 percent of older employees feel the same way. Younger workers in the US see the biggest benefit of AI as its ability to create an overall fairer working environment.

Another potential benefit anticipated by younger workers is the elimination of manual processes and time wasted on basic, administrative work, each of which detracts from more rewarding workplace activities.

Large, mid-market, and even small businesses are preparing to implement AI technology, but to be truly successful the implementation must embrace the workforce in an open and transparent way, said Ian Parkes, director at Coleman Parkes Research.

AI will have a positive impact, providing fairer management and increased workforce flexibility and productivity, Parkes said. Fear stems from the unknown, he said, and better communication will allow the benefits of AI to be maximized across an organization.

While emerging technologies always generate uncertainty, the survey shows that employees see AI as a promising tool that could pave the way for better employee experience if it's used to add fairness and eliminate low-value workplace processes and tasks, said Joyce Maroney, executive director of the Workforce Institute. This would allow employees to focus on the parts of their roles that really matter, she said.

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