The Upsides and Downsides of AI in Workplace Culture: A Pragmatic View

Written by
Ryan McGrory
August 4, 2022

I listened to Matt Kuperholz speak about AI and workplace culture at Culture Con last month, and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since.

In five minutes, he tore back the curtain and (using what he claimed to be ‘Year 10 maths’) explained exactly how ChatGPT and Midjourney perform their magic. He then discussed the significant disruptions they will cause to workplace culture... and how we can not just survive, but thrive, in this exponentially changing world*.  

I’ve since read a shitload of blogs, articles and posts about AI … but none have quite managed to access my Year 10 brain in quite the same way.

Upon this journey, I can summarise what I’ve read into the following three categories:

  • Blind optimism - “OMG, Chat GPT is everything we ever needed and more.. I just became a lawyer in 24mins!” (representing roughly 45%)
  • Fear-driven pessimism - “AI is coming for us and we’re all gonna die … oh and it’s slightly racist”’ (45%)
  • Excited yet cautious pragmatism - “This is an amazing opportunity, but let’s be careful about it.” (10%)

I noticed that the third category happens to represent the views of people who are the most qualified or experienced on this topic. They seem to have a more balanced view, and say things like -

"AI has the potential to unlock new levels of productivity and innovation, but only if we're able to integrate it effectively into our workplaces. We need to be strategic about how we deploy AI and ensure that it aligns with our organizational goals." - Rob Thomas (not Matchbox 20 lead singer, but … ) Senior Vice President at IBM.

"AI can help us build more diverse and inclusive workplaces, but only if we're intentional about how we design and implement these systems. We need to be aware of the potential for bias and take steps to address it." -  Joy Buolamwini, Founder of the Algorithmic Justice League.

It’s a little scary that we seemingly have to dig beyond the overly emotional responses (a lot of which come from self-proclaimed thought-leaders, by the way) to find what the experts are saying and I worry that popular opinion on this topic will continue to be formed by listening to the loudest and not the smartest voice in the room.

So, I was inspired to write a simple article (using Year 6 expository essay skills) summing up what I feel are the top five potential upsides and downsides of AI in the context of workplace culture.

The Top 5 Potential Upsides

"AI will change the way we work and the kinds of work we do. It's going to free us from routine tasks and help us focus on more creative and fulfilling work." - Erik Brynjolfsson, Director of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy

  1. Automation: AI can automate routine and repetitive tasks, freeing up employees to focus on more meaningful work. This can lead to a more fulfilling work environment and greater job satisfaction.
  2. Efficiency: AI can help improve efficiency in the workplace by streamlining processes and reducing errors. This can lead to greater productivity and less stress for employees.
  3. Learning: AI can be used to provide personalised learning opportunities for employees, which can help them develop new skills and advance their careers. This can lead to a more engaged and motivated workforce.
  4. Collaboration: AI can facilitate collaboration between employees by providing tools for real-time communication, project management, and data sharing. This can lead to greater teamwork and more innovative solutions.
  5. Personalization: AI can provide personalised recommendations and guidance for employees based on their skills and interests. This can lead to a more customised and fulfilling work experience.

The Top 5 Potential Downsides

"The biggest risk of AI in the workplace is that it will reinforce existing power structures and exacerbate inequality." - Cathy O'Neil, Data Scientist and author of Weapons of Math Destruction

  1. Job Displacement: One of the biggest concerns associated with AI is job displacement. As AI systems become more sophisticated, they can replace jobs that were previously done by humans. This could lead to unemployment and economic insecurity, which can have a negative impact on workplace culture.
  2. Bias: AI systems can perpetuate biases that exist in society. For example, if an AI system is trained on biased data, it may make decisions that are discriminatory. This can lead to a toxic work environment and erode trust among employees.
  3. Privacy: AI systems can collect and analyse large amounts of data about employees, which can raise concerns about privacy. Employees who feel that their privacy is being violated may become distrustful of their employer and disengaged from their work.
  4. Control: As AI systems become more prevalent, they may start to exert control over certain aspects of the workplace. For example, an AI system that controls scheduling may limit employee autonomy and flexibility. This can lead to feelings of frustration and powerlessness among employees.
  5. Social Isolation: AI systems can facilitate remote work, which can be beneficial in some cases. However, if remote work becomes the norm, it can lead to social isolation and a lack of connection among employees. This can have a negative impact on workplace culture and employee well-being.

There are lots of cool and scary things there, hey? I can’t help but feel both excited and scared about where things are. Though, I’m trying to apply a Stoic indifference towards AI and remind myself that tools such as ChatGPT are neither good nor bad in themselves - but should be judged by how they’re used.

If they’re used wisely, fairly, bravely and in moderation - then that would be good. If they’re used foolishly or exploitatively and create injustices, then not so much.

And, rather than worrying or predicting how it's going to be used, I feel that the responsibility is actually on us as workplace and culture leaders to choose whether we tools for good or bad in our organisations.

And, if we try our best to listen to the smartest and not the loudest group, then we’ve got a great chance of approaching this opportunity with balance and context.

*Oh, and speaking of … if you want to understand some context around AI and how it works, then here’s a link to Matt Kuperholz’s talk at Culture Con last month - I recommend it:

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