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Could AI solve the UK’s productivity problem?

Automating repetitive tasks could boost Britain's output, but MPs were told this week workers must be protected.

By Ryan Morrison

UK productivity has remained relatively static for the past 15 years with minimal growth compared to countries like China and the US. The cause is up for debate, but many experts predict the solution is to take away the boring and repetitive tasks and get AI to handle them. This would leave humans to focus on growth and creative pursuits, but MPs at a hearing into the use of AI in the workplace heard this week that protections must be put in place to safeguard workers.

Researchers predict humans and AI will work regularly side-by-side within the next three years (Photo: PaO_STUDIO/Shutterstock)
Researchers predict humans and AI will work regularly side-by-side within the next three years. (Photo: PaO_STUDIO/Shutterstock)

During a DCMS select committee hearing on the role of smart technology in the workplace on Tuesday, Dr Matthew Cole, researcher at the Fairwork Project said there are positives around using AI to free up human staff for activities people are better at than technology but warned there are privacy risks.

“There are risks to saturation of working life with data and tracking technologies including RFID and sentiment analysis,” he said. “It can be used in ways that don’t benefit workers and infringe on privacy. It is important to navigate benefits and drawbacks.”

Despite these risks, Dr Cole told the select committee there is a role for AI in solving the productivity gap, saying “it isn’t a question of algorithms versus humans, it is how the two can work together”.

The pandemic only increased the productivity problem. As well as a shift in where we work it changed how we work, a trend that started before the pandemic with the rise of Generation Z, the first fully digital native generation. It triggered the so-called “great resignation”, a phenomenon that saw hundreds of thousands of employees leave their jobs in the UK alone, and not all of them returned to the workforce.

It also led to 'quiet quitting', with employees limiting their productivity and working the minimum specified in their employment contracts. The reason behind both of these is up for debate, but the CEO of workplace AI company Laiye International, Ronen Lamdan, puts it down to boredom, frustration and a change in attitude over what people want from work.

A new survey of 1,300 c-suite executives by Laiye found that 96% said they are aware many of their employees are looking for other work, with 40% saying staff were looking outside the business and 54% looking for a lateral move in the hope of doing something different within the company. Those responding also noticed changes because of quiet quitting, with 53% saying company growth slowed and 46% said there had been overall poor productivity levels from their workforce.

The survey looked at issues around the modern workforce and engagement, carried out by independent research company Coleman Parkes. It found multiple challenges facing companies including around keeping employees engaged and attracting those with in-demand skills. It involved executives working at utilities, in retail, financial services, travel, manufacturing and logistics, and questioned them on post-pandemic changes and their impact.

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In the UK alone 78% found keeping employees engaged was a major challenge and 67% said retaining talent is a growing problem. This is driven in part by the fact employees are tired of carrying out the same repetitive tasks, with 58% of executives saying that is a problem.

Everyday tasks can be handled by AI

Lamdan maintains that the solution to this is through artificial intelligence. Handing over everyday tasks, such as filing invoices and logging hours to a smart assistant could free up the human to focus on finding new business, looking for efficiencies and being creative, he argues

“AI is not the enemy, but it is unavoidably here. Protecting human jobs means using AI to work alongside, not against people. For that we need a clear framework, both in policy and in business strategy,” he says. “Closing the human versus digital gap, and its nefarious consequences like burnout, low productivity and resignations it causes, is vital. This is the work execution gap. Empowering people to programme their digital co-workers to make their own jobs better means humans remain firmly in the loop, no human jobs get lost. The Government should plan to enable business to implement this with incentives and advances for those putting their workforce first.”

Dr Efpraxia Zamani, senior lecturer in information systems at the University of Sheffield told the DCMS select committee that smart devices and AI offer several efficiencies including in “supply chains and operations, generating responsive environments and increases in productivity in different workplaces,” but that it comes with trade-offs.

“There are trade-offs with negative implications,” she warned. “For these devices to be useful they have to collect data and process data and at the end of the chain there are decisions made.” For this technology to work she said it is vital the data used to train the systems is varied and of good quality, and there is informed consent for those using and not using the technology.

Dr Cole agrees, but says it is also vital that any use of automation considers the impact on the human, such as ensuring people have time to disconnect from work and technology. He told MPs: “If you look at the growth of the major tech companies, they are supporting an entire ecosystem of AI and data-based and cloud-based companies that are shifting the infrastructure of society and infrastructure of work. Whether it be logistics, last-mile delivery or jobs."

Vital employees are protected

The effects of AI in the workplace "are very clear," Dr Cole continued, "and one of the biggest issues concerns control over data. GDPR provides a certain degree of protection for private individuals but in terms of protecting workers and the workplace, there are few provisions. They deal with public access requests and automated decision-making but there is a lack of enforcement.”

He said the government needs to introduce greater protections for workplace users of AI technology as this is likely to be pervasive throughout industry.

“Any kind of repetitive cognitive task is subject to this new wave of automation,” he said. “They won’t completely disappear, the task composition will change but they will be largely de-skilled and opened to more competition and flexibility in the labour market. That tends to reduce bargaining power and wages which needs mitigating against.”

In its survey, Laiye found that companies are starting to change the way they work to use AI to empower humans to be more innovative, with 31% investing in professional and career development and 27% evaluating basic admin roles in terms of productivity and job satisfaction.

Dr Cole warned the MPs leading the select committee hearing that large companies such as Amazon are heavily tracking the movements of staff not to help productivity but to automate those jobs, declaring it “would be easier for them if they didn’t need human employees”.

For employers, 40% see 2025 as the point when workers and AI will be working closely together, 95% plan to have some degree of digital workforce, and 58% plan to give staff digital assistance to increase productivity, according to the Laiye survey.

When asked about how we can prepare for this future where data and automation is central to all jobs, Dr Cole said: “I think there should be greater education in the public about data rights and you could introduce a type of regulation that requires companies to make your rights more intelligible.”

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