Artificial intelligence (AI) is becoming increasingly prevalent in workplaces around the world. As more companies adopt AI technologies like machine learning, automation and robotics, many roles and responsibilities traditionally performed by human employees are being transformed or even phased out. While AI innovation presents new opportunities for business efficiency and productivity, it also poses potential threats to employee engagement.
As routine tasks get automated by AI, employees may feel displaced and unsure of their future role. They may distrust management’s motives behind AI implementation, fearing their jobs will be eliminated. This mounting uncertainty could understandably deteriorate employee motivation, wellbeing, commitment and fulfilment in their work. Business leaders face a pressing challenge: leveraging the benefits of AI technology while keeping employees meaningfully engaged.
By communicating transparently, involving staff in decisions and providing training and development opportunities, managers can reassure employees and ignite engagement and innovation. We will explore practical leadership strategies to keep employees inspired and thriving in the age of AI transformation.
Grappling with the Threat of AI Innovation
AI and automation are rapidly transforming the workplace across industries. According to a recent McKinsey report, up to 30% of activities in 60% of occupations could be automated by 2030. From manufacturing to healthcare and finance, AI and machine learning are automating a range of tasks and allowing businesses to operate more efficiently. Supply chain logistics are being optimised by predictive algorithms and robotic process automation (RPA) can replicate administrative functions like data processing and reporting.
While these innovations promise improved productivity and competitive advantage, many businesses are ready to embrace the new technology. According to PwC’s Hopes and Fears 2023 Report, 77% of leaders said that they planned to invest in technologies like AI. Employees, meanwhile, seemed more dismissive with less than half (46%) believing AI will impact their job, 10% worrying AI will replace their role, and 12% fearing it will change their work negatively. Therefore, the general consensus seems to be that investing in technology is one part of AI’s movement and creating AI-powered workforces will necessitate more of a cultural change and further acceptance of the current advances in technology.
With robots and algorithms now able to perform essential functions at lower costs, companies may be tempted to replace swathes of their workforces. Even if entire roles aren’t eliminated, AI threatens to dehumanise work by stripping away interpersonal elements.
Employees across many industries are concerned that AI implementation will eventually lead to widespread layoffs. Even those whose jobs are secure have anxieties about having to learn new skills and work alongside machines. With proper leadership strategy, however, businesses can reframe AI as an opportunity rather than a threat.
Upholding Employee Engagement in the Face of Disruption
Employee engagement is crucial for organisational success, yet it faces real threats from AI disruption. Engaged employees are committed to their work and employer, motivated to go beyond basic requirements, and invested in the company’s mission.
Engagement stems from fulfilment in one’s potential and capabilities, a strong sense of wellbeing, and trust in leaders. AI risks deteriorating these foundations. As roles transform, employees may feel unsure of their purpose or relevance. Fears around job security and training needs can sap motivation. Stress and anxiety from learning new systems and skill sets also takes a toll on mental health, while distrust of management’s motives behind AI implementation risks detachment.
Effective change management is essential for nurturing staff and fostering the right workplace culture. Managers can adapt, be agile and benefit from guidance on adopting leadership approaches that maintain engagement despite disruption. Being transparent about intentions, involving staff in decisions and providing upskilling opportunities can ease uncertainty. Yet this alone is insufficient – engagement requires human connection.
With AI threatening to dehumanise work, managers must double down on interpersonal leadership strategies to maintain trust, fulfilment and meaning. Though disruption is inevitable, leaders who reassure anxious workers and refocus them on uniquely human strengths will sustain engagement and performance.
Implementing Leadership Strategies to Boost Engagement
As AI transforms the workplace, managers need to proactively adopt strategies to maintain employee engagement and to boost engagement with AI technologies.
Identify, develop and invest in employees and culture
From the get go, it is important for business leaders to be transparent about their plans to implement and adopt AI. While businesses are keen to invest in AI, they want their workforce to move with them so provide ample reassurances, and open about timelines and reasons for adoption. Companies are already making a head start in their efforts to be more open about their plans to roll-out AI tools. For example, Microsoft has published six core principles for developing and deploying AI responsibly. They discuss being transparent about AI capabilities and their core principles cover fairness, reliability and safety, privacy and security, inclusiveness, transparency, and accountability.
innovate and transform operations and employees together
Following Microsoft’s decision to “innovate with purpose”, it is also key for companies to merge the uptake of AI within your company and keep employees on board at the same time. It is important to make it clear to your staff that AI aims to augment human capabilities, rather than replace jobs to maintain. One company already demonstrating their efforts to augment AI with existing tasks is JP Morgan Chase who uses AI chatbots to handle routine customer inquiries while freeing up their expert bankers and creating new AI-inspired software to handle the more complex client needs.
By transforming tech advances and shifting the culture at the same time, you are more likely to maintain and build a level of trust. Be sure to encourage employees to explore the ways AI can innovate their work as well as play and test AI tools in their own time. In the case of JP Morgan Chase, it was their bankers who helped in the design phases of their augmented software.
build and inclusive approach to AI integration
It is also good to involve staff in AI decisions, seeking their input on workflow changes, and investing in retraining and upskilling. This includes assessing skill gaps, providing training, and offering guidance, creating a sense of agency and value within the workforce. Another real-case example can be seen in DHL AI-powered training programs and their continuous adoption and integration of interactive AI in operational environments and in back-office to demonstrate their human-machine collaboration.
A business leader’s goal when engaging employees in AI is to promote a culture of innovation and a growth mindset around AI’s new capabilities. Encourage employees to view AI as an opportunity to develop new capabilities and shape the future of work. DHL also introduced ‘MyTrainer’ to upskill warehouse workers enabling them to handle more automated facilities.
Emphasise unique human strengths
Business leaders should emphasise the value they place on human skills like adaptability and collaboration and rethink future recruiting to include a focus on attributes like judgement and leadership. Reframe jobs to focus more on high-level analysis, problem solving, and customer service. Starbucks has implemented AI to improve customer service by automating its administrative tasks. By automating tasks like scheduling and inventory planning, the beverage giant enables employees to focus on customer service and their own development more keenly.
provide coaching and mentorship
Establishing coaching and mentorship programmes can help to support career development and role advancement in the age of AI. Managers should guide employees on paths to new roles. At UPS, for instance, AI was implemented to enhance their route optimisation service. Drivers have been involved in designing the user interface to make adoption smoother. New roles can therefore be created in analytics and automation management.
Maintaining Innovation and Business Success with AI
While boosting engagement, leaders must also ensure AI implementation aligns to business goals. AI should enhance human capabilities and create new opportunities, not just replace workers. Leaders should:
- Leverage AI to augment human strengths. Use it to automate rote tasks, generate insights from data and take over dangerous work. This liberates employees to focus on creative, strategic priorities.
- Set clear goals around responsible and ethical AI adoption. Evaluate impacts on workers and customers. Form cross-functional oversight teams accountable for AI fairness, transparency and compliance.
- Continuously evaluate AI systems after implementation, assessing impacts on employees, customers and business KPIs. Be ready to make adjustments to ensure positive outcomes.
- Instil a sense of shared mission and purpose to guide employees through the transformation. Connect AI objectives to meaningful goals that get people excited about opportunities.
With responsible implementation and supporting workers through changes, businesses can maintain innovation and success in the AI age. AI should make human jobs more satisfying and impactful, not replace them. An engaged workforce is still the ultimate driver of sustainable growth.
Trusting AI and the Art of Employee Engagement
As AI transforms workplaces, business leaders face the pressing challenge of leveraging its benefits while keeping employees meaningfully engaged. With transparent communication, substantial reskilling investments, and an innovation-focused culture that harnesses AI to augment human strengths, managers can ignite engagement and performance.
Frequent transparent communication, substantial reskilling investment and a supportive culture focused on human strengths are key to keeping employees engaged as AI transforms organisations. With the right leadership strategies, businesses can invest in AI and ignite employees to the potential of these transformative tech tools. From the start, it’s good to encourage employees to explore the ways AI can transform and complement their roles, while identifying and acknowledging the limits that AI can’t compensate for such as, the human creative skills, empathy and unique professional input. Look for ways to retain and value existing staff who embrace change while working on recruitment options where AI will be an essential part of your business’ future.
Maintaining trust and fulfilment during disruption will be key to sustainable success in the age of AI. An engaged, future-ready workforce is any organisation’s most valuable asset. It is worth reminding employees that while AI can automate certain tasks, it doesn’t have to mean that it always results in less interpersonal communication. And, in some cases, AI might actually free up time for more ingenious human interactions!
Author: Dakota Murphey – Freelance Writer.
Photo credit: iStock