Managers want generative AI, but workers need more help getting to grips with it

More staff are experimenting with generative artificial intelligence (GenAI) tools in the workplace, but adoption may be being held back by a lack of guidance from managers.

In its latest survey of more than 10,000 desk workers around the globe, the Workforce Lab from Slack found that experimentation with AI tools in the office continues to grow.

It found that one in four desk workers reported having tried AI tools for work as of January 2024, compared with one in five in September last year. One in three desk workers said they had used automation tools – such as automated workflows – in their job.

The survey from Slack – which was acquired by Salesforce in 2021 – also found that, outside of work, another 19% had used GenAI and 8% had used automation. That still means, of course, that about half of desk workers haven’t tried either.

Of the respondents who had used AI and automation tools for work, around 80% said the technology was already improving their productivity.

The top tasks where desk workers said they were seeing the most value from AI tools included in writing assistance, automating workflows and summarising content. Writing summaries has replaced “research” as a top value-add for respondents since Slack’s September 2023 survey.

It’s still early days for generative AI in the workplace, and so it’s perhaps unsurprising that attitudes towards the new technology vary. While enthusiasts for GenAI argue that it will enhance jobs by automating away the tedious busy-work and giving them a chance to focus on more creative work, others warn that managers will more likely use the opportunity of generative AI to cut staff levels instead.

While the largest proportion of those surveyed (42%) said they were excited about the idea of AI handling tasks from their current job, another 27% said they were concerned about these tools handling common workplace tasks, with the remaining 31% in “wait-and-see” mode.

“Lack of instruction may be preventing employees from experimenting with AI. Desk workers at companies that have defined AI guidelines are nearly six times more likely to have tried AI tools, compared with desk workers whose companies have no guidelines around AI usage”
Slack research

If workers are split on the introduction of AI tools, bosses seem far more bullish. The survey found that the majority (81%) of executives feel “some urgency” to incorporate generative AI into their organisations, with 50% of leaders reporting a high degree of urgency.

However, the survey found that almost half of staff had received no guidance from their leaders or organisation on how to use AI tools at work.

“Lack of instruction may be preventing employees from experimenting with AI,” the Slack research said. “Desk workers at companies that have defined AI guidelines are nearly six times more likely to have tried AI tools, compared with desk workers whose companies have no guidelines around AI usage.”

Workers at companies where the usage guidelines limit the use of AI are still more likely to have experimented with AI tools than those at companies with no rules around AI usage.

The results are in line with a survey by Isaca in October last year, which found that only 28% of organisations expressly permitted the use of generative AI and only 10% had a formal comprehensive policy in place. While setting up guidance around generative AI might be a new area, without it, there is the risk that staff will use these tools in ways the organisations might not want – something that is known as “shadow AI”.

As a result, some organisations, especially in the public sector, have started to put in place guidelines for what staff can – and cannot – do with generative AI technologies. Much of this has focused on making sure that all content is checked to prevent any chance of AI hallucination and ensuring that humans are always involved in key decision-making.

For example, US city San Francisco published its own generative AI guidelines in December 2023 which included rules around always disclosing the use of these tools and never putting sensitive information into public tools. New York also has a set of guidelines in place.

“The vast majority of people who are using AI and automation are already starting to experience productivity gains,” said Christina Janzer, senior vice-president of research and analytics at Slack and head of Slack’s Workforce Lab.

“But the data indicates that failing to provide guidance or instruction on AI may be inhibiting your employees from giving it a try. If you’re looking to ready your workforce for the AI revolution, you can start by providing guidelines for how AI can be used at work.”

The research found the top business benefits that executives are most looking forward to from integrating AI into business operations include increased efficiency and productivity of employees (38%), the ability to make data-driven decision-making (35%), innovation in products and services (34%) and cost reductions (33%). Managers are also hoping for an increased focus on strategy over rote tasks (27%) and enhanced customer experience (18%).

In terms of what is stopping executives from fully embracing AI, data security and privacy topped the list at (44%), followed by worries about AI reliability and accuracy (36%). A lack of expertise and a skills gap among staff was cited by one in four (25%), while broader ethical and compliance issues were blamed by (17%). Customer trust and acceptance was mentioned by 17%, while 16% said the cost of implementation and maintenance was an issue.

The research suggests that desk workers report spend as much as 41% of their time at work on tasks that are low value and don’t contribute much to their core job functions. The more time desk workers spend on low-value work, the “more excitement they express for AI and automation to handle tasks from their current job”, the Slack report said.

“We all have tasks to complete that aren’t part of our job description but are necessary to keep things running smoothly. But if the average desk worker is spending two full days each week on this ‘work of work’, that’s a problem – and an opportunity,” said Janzer.

“In this pivotal moment, implementing AI and automation tools that are trusted, intuitive and embedded in the flow of work is key to recalibrating energy at work toward the activities that will move the needle,” she added.

By 111 Tech

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