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AI in the workplace: Try it, you'll like it

It’s not too soon to prepare for AI in the workplace. It’s been a slog, but the AI-driven digital technologies  that are radically altering how we collect, communicate and act on information in our personal lives are making their way into the office. Just ask Amazon about its plan to put an Echo in every conference room.

When the digital revolution finally hits our places of employment, work will change. The hours we spend tethered to keyboards will shrink, thanks to conversational interfaces that encourage us to talk instead of type. Frantically typed searches for files will give way to requests, “So-and-so, find me all my files in the last two months on digital transformation.” A personal bot will do our data entry. AI-assisted CRM programs will tell us which customers to focus on this week. Smart productivity software will shut off incoming emails when we’re stressed (because it can read our vital signs). Forget about forgetting the names of colleagues you should know. Unobtrusive augmented reality devices will give us the lowdown on whom we’re talking to. Just like the political elite, each of us will have our own body man, and work will be better.

That’s how Alan Lepofsky, principal analyst at Constellation Research, sees AI in the workplace panning out — or how he hopes it will. A veteran analyst of enterprise collaboration, Lepofsky has recently shifted focus from assessing the particularities of productivity tools to looking at what AI-powered technology will mean for employees.

Alan Lepofsky

“When I think about the future of work, I don’t picture Mark Zuckerberg with a headset on, walking around with robotic limbs. I think about the regular Joe, about how NLP [natural language processing] is going to make my Mom’s job better,” Lepofsky told me when we caught up recently by phone about how AI in the workplace will unfold.

Imagine your laptop monitoring your blinking rate and telling you when you’ve been sitting too long or typing too much, Lepofsky said. Indeed, he’s convinced that ensuring employees’ health, wellness and safety will be an important component of AI in the workplace. “I think employers want to do what they can. It is sort of a modern quest.”

To remain relevant in this technology-enhanced work environment, employees will have to adjust, Lepofsky said. A research report he published in January, “How to embrace new skills for the future of work,” lays out three areas in which he believes employees must be proficient:

  • Embracing augmented capabilities to enhance productivity
  • Leveraging analytics to help determine focus areas and priorities
  • Unleashing creative abilities to improve engagement

In the future workplace, AI will improve our ability to work, not displace us, according to the report. And soon. AI in the workplace will  can sort large data sets, prioritize items based on personal preferences and previous decisions and automate repetitive tasks; video services can transcribe audio content and use facial recognition to identify speakers, and so on. The AI will become so seamless that employees won’t even know they’re using it, but they “still need to understand this new augmented era in the workplace,” Lepofsky wrote.

“They will need to evolve their skill and comfort levels with automation, learn when they can trust AI-empowered recommendations and decisions and know what steps to take when manual intervention is required. They will need to be cognizant of the security implications of AI and understand the balance between privacy and convenience that is required to train these new applications to act on our behalf.”

Employees who learn to take advantage of AI in the workplace will have a leg up over those who don’t, Lepofsky predicts. The quantified employee, as he calls the future worker, will have a better understanding of what he or she should be working on and what to ignore, what should be prioritized and what postponed. We’ll know which emails were effective, which conversations proved productive, when we were good and when we weren’t.

Of course, our AI-enhanced workflows will mean our employers can also track and judge our performance, digital minute by digital minute.

PS: You’ll have to read Lepofsky’s research to find out about unleashing our creativity skills in the future workplace. Suffice it to say, he believes the quantified employee will take workaday emails and spreadsheets to a whole new place.

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