If you want to reap the benefits of Artificial intelligence, talk to your employees: How employee voice mechanisms can support the adoption of AI in the workplace

Artificial intelligence (AI) offers substantive opportunities for increasing productivity and economic growth in the UK. Some estimates suggest that GDP in the UK could be 10% higher in 2030 as a consequence of the adoption of AI[1]. Whilst the UK is a leader in the development of AI innovation, technology adoption in UK businesses does not compare favourably with other leading nations[2]. While there are potential benefits through greater development and adoption of AI, there are also much-discussed risks regarding employment, inequality and ethics.

From a work and employment perspective, much of the debate has currently focussed on how AI will impact employment levels and which types of jobs and tasks may be affected most, driving the need to up-skill and re-skill at-risk populations. There has been less focus on how AI adoption can be enabled and enhanced by workplace practices and culture, in particular employee involvement. Or put another way, how attempts at adoption of existing and emerging technology can be hampered by a lack of employee involvement.

A majority of employees are not consulted about the introduction of new technology at work

At IES, back in 2020, we supported the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development (CIPD), with some research examining the employee experience of technology at work[3]. At that time, generative AI (artificial intelligence that can be used to create new content in various formats) and the likes of ChatGPT, were not yet on the scene the way they are now. Nonetheless, the research highlighted some interesting insights. Firstly, it revealed that the majority of employees surveyed at that time did not feel that part (72%) or all (91%) of their job would be automated within the next year. I wonder if similar results would be seen today? I doubt it. Second, the vast majority of employees (80-93%) did not think that the introduction of technology had improved business performance. Perhaps part of the explanation for that perception was the lived experience of employees, with the majority (50%) feeling that they now needed more skills and knowledge to carry out their role and that their role was now more complex (40%); with less than one-third receiving training to prepare and support them in the face of a role change. Employees possibly had the sense of a lack of improvement in business performance as they themselves had not experienced any improvement, or indeed had experienced a worsening, of their perception of productivity. Thirdly, only one-third of employees or their representatives were consulted about the introduction of new technology, potentially cutting off a route to understanding how best to embed the technology within existing work practices and culture, and how to facilitate the up-skilling required. And the fourth, and perhaps, killer statistic was that where employees were not consulted about the introduction of new technology only 20% were positive about its impact on job quality, compared with 70% of those who were consulted.

Employee voice mechanisms positively impact the successful adoption of advanced and emerging technologies at work

This latter finding reflects wider research on the benefits of employee voice mechanisms on the adoption of new technology at work. Research[4] exploring the interplay between labour institutions and firm-level adoption of advanced technologies - including robotics and advanced digital tools, conducted across more than 20,000 European establishments found a positive impact of employee voice mechanisms on the successful adoption of emerging technologies. The underlying reasons revolve around the association of such mechanisms with workplace practices such as training, information sharing, and planning of working-time arrangements that are complementary to the adoption of new technologies. The recent released NHS long-term Workforce Plan[5] places significant emphasis on AI and other advanced technologies enabling the freeing up of staff time and achieving greater efficiencies. It is notable that recent research on the enablers and barriers to AI adoption in the NHS highlighted the need for professionals to understand and have a sense of trust in how AI tools could benefit them in their work for any implementation to have a chance of success[6]. Employee voice mechanisms have the potential to foster trust between managers and staff, providing crucial intelligence for managers on how workplace initiatives can be best shaped as well as how they are working out in practice.

AI is evolving rapidly, and to some extent we are all frantically trying to understand it and ensure that its benefits are maximised, and its potential risks averted. Whilst the pace of change can be disconcerting, a clear lesson from the use of (advanced) technology at work is to establish positive and constructive mechanisms for encouraging a two-way dialogue between managers and staff. Doing so can not only create the climate of trust in which change is facilitated, but also very practical benefits in making adoption successful on the ground.

[1] Tech UK (2023) AI adoption in the UK: Putting AI into action. Tech UK

[2] AFW0039 - Evidence on Automation and the future of work (parliament.uk)

[3] CIPD (2020) Workplace technology: the employee experience. CIPD. Workplace technology: the employee experience (cipd.org)

[4] Belloc F, Burdin G, Landini F (2022) ‘Advanced technologies and worker voice’, Economica (2023) 90, 1-38. https://eprints.whiterose.ac.uk/190772/7/Economica%20-%202022%20-%20Belloc%20-%20Advanced%20Technologies%20and%20Worker%20Voice.pdf  accessed on 20/07/23

[5] https://digital-transformation.hee.nhs.uk/news/nhs-long-term-workforce-plan-puts-digital-at-the-forefront

[6] Morrison K (2021) Artificial intelligence and the NHS: a qualitative exploration of the factors influencing adoption. Future Healthcare Journal. https://www.rcpjournals.org/content/futurehosp/8/3/e648

 Written by Dan Lucy, Director of HR Research and Consulting, IES