Featured in today's newsletter:
- AI’s impact on income inequality.
- The rising popularity of sick days.
- A tactic to make meeting attendees more engaged.
AI and Work Radar
- A recent study found that an AI-powered training system for playing the board game Go produced the most pronounced gains in younger players and those in countries with more widespread AI adoption, “suggesting potential inequality in learning from AI,” the study authors wrote.
- Some younger workers are now turning to AI to answer questions they previously would have asked mentors, such as the meaning of a piece of business jargon or how to have a difficult conversation with a supervisor. However, “a lot of mentor and mentee conversations are private conversations, and I don’t necessarily want to have private conversations in a public large language model that’s tied to my name,” Jason Averbook, Mercer senior partner and global leader of digital HR strategy, told WorkLife.
- Researchers are working on extending the capabilities of chatbots to empower them to roam freely across the internet, with the ability to use digital tools ranging from spreadsheets to travel-booking sites. These so-called “AI agents” represent “a huge commercial opportunity, potentially trillions of dollars,” Jeff Clune, a computer science professor at the University of British Columbia, told The New York Times.
- AI tools designed to record and summarize meetings are also being used to correct attendees’ behavior, with real-time reminders asking speakers to stop monologuing and transcripts that note the number of times participants interrupted one another.
Focus on How AI Can Lessen Income Inequality
Conversations about AI and labor often focus on the dichotomy between automation, or replicating tasks that people perform, and augmentation, or enabling people to do things they previously couldn’t. (Charter has also written about this distinction, arguing in favor of the latter.) “But task automation and labor augmentation are not polar opposites,” write economists Ajay Agrawal, Joshua Gans, and Avi Goldfarb in a piece in Science Magazine. They argue that task automation can augment workers, and that in some cases, it could decrease income inequality. If AI automates a task that requires a specialized skill, for example, it could boost the productivity of less-skilled workers and create new employment opportunities for them.
We spoke with Gans, a professor of strategic management at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, about the automation versus augmentation debate and how AI could decrease income inequality. Here are excerpts from our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity:
You've co-authored articles that challenge the idea that there’s a dichotomy between automation and augmentation. Can you explain?
When you think about how something like ChatGPT works, for instance, it makes it very easy to write a letter. What is it doing when it does that? It is automating the writing task for that letter. That means that if you are a busy person, and writing a letter is part of your job, that's saving you time. To the extent that it's allowing you to write an even better letter than you would as well, that's increasing your productivity. So there we have something that is technically automation, but is actually augmenting people in the plain meaning of the word augment.
You’ve also argued that some tasks, like writing, are barriers to entry for certain professions for people who don’t have those skills. So if you automate that task, you open up this job to more people….
That's right. AI is very good at imitating what a skillful person could do in a task. Your job may be a multitude of tasks, some of which require some skills that you do not have. If AI has been able to provide that, it enhances your overall productivity. If you've already got those skills, of course it's not going to do very much.
One historical example you’ve written about when it comes to the impact of task automation on an occupation is London taxi drivers, who have had to pass an exam demonstrating their knowledge of the city's thousands of streets and landmarks since the 19th century. Can you talk about that example?
You have to learn the whole street map of London. And you have to not only do that, but you have to learn the shortest distance between any two points. You have to memorize it. It’s something that takes you two to four years depending on how good you are. But now basically every single person who has a smartphone has that skill and has it for free. So this thing that was a unique capability is now very widespread. Effectively that means that anyone can be as good as a London taxi driver, even if you've never been to London before—or it's very close to that. So you have to say, ‘Why are we forcing these people to still learn all this stuff?’ That doesn't seem like a good idea, creating a four-year entry barrier to be a taxi driver. But more importantly, it's a dramatic democratization of that skillset.
One of your arguments is that AI could decrease inequality by opening up more professions for more people. A concern someone could have with that argument is that the technology wouldn’t be decreasing inequality by bringing everyone up, but rather bringing everyone down to low-wage work by devaluing expertise. How do you respond to that?
It's very hard to work out all of these things, but it's not doing this to every single skill that people have. Moreover, there's actually a limited amount of workers out there. What tends to happen in this situation is yes, if you are earning a premium for a particular skill—and the [London] taxi driver is a great case of that—it wipes that out. But in most of these other situations, it's a barrier to entry to the job, and it unlocks other skills.
For instance, if you have a landscape gardening business, but you are an immigrant and you don't speak English particularly well, when you're communicating over email with clients, now AI allows you to do so in a more fluent manner. That allows you to now earn money in your actual skill, which is gardening. Yes, that's going to mean the native English speaking gardeners aren't going to earn quite as much as they were previously, but there's a whole lot of others who earn a lot more.
I'm sure we'll be able to point to jobs like the taxi drivers, where yes, it has completely transformed this thing. But for the vast majority of jobs, I don't think that'll be the case. Even for the very high-skilled people, chances are they've got other skills going on as well, other than the ones replaced by AI. It's not like they're going to lose those advantages altogether. That's why it's kind of hard to predict what's going to happen with inequality. But that's our point: It's not obvious that it's going to be creating massive amounts of new inequality.
Read a full transcript of our conversation, including what generative AI means for writing professions.
What Else You Need to Know
The business community still lacks consensus on how to speak about the Israel-Hamas conflict with employees. As the war continues, leaders share differing opinions on how to address the events in Gaza and Israel, as well as the impact they may be having on individual employees and their communities.
- When Fortune columnist Peter Vanham asked business leaders for their ideas, “the most common suggestion was to speak up and empathize with employees—and to stay away from politics and social media,” he wrote. Other suggestions included making corporate donations to organizations like the Red Cross and Red Crescent, which are working to address the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.
- JPMorgan released one of the most comprehensive corporate statements on the conflict in a memo from CEO Jamie Dimon and the bank’s executive committee. In it, leaders condemned terrorism and hatred, recognized the tragedy in the ongoing war and bloodshed in Gaza, called out escalating antisemitism and Islamophobia worldwide, reminded employees of JPMorgan’s corporate values of equity and inclusion, and reiterated its commitment to employee safety.
- Notably, the statement highlighted concrete actions the bank is taking, including cooperation between security teams and law enforcement, internal support group sessions for employees, and corporate donations and employee donation matching for humanitarian aid groups.
Employees are taking on additional work amid a tight labor market. With an ongoing labor shortage, 58% of employees polled by Gallup report that their employer has asked workers to take on additional responsibilities.
- Compared to respondents whose workplaces have not added additional responsibilities for employees, employees with higher demands on their productivity were 2.5 times as likely to feel burned out very often or always, 55% more likely to consider leaving their job, 39% less likely to be engaged at work, and half as likely to think their employer cares about their wellbeing.
Economists are increasingly optimistic that the economy will avoid a recession. In a quarterly poll of business and academic economists conducted by The Wall Street Journal, economists rated the probability of a recession within the next year as 48%, compared to 63% in October 2022.
- It’s the first time the probability has been less than 50% since mid-2022.
- Economists point to several factors for the decreasing likelihood of a recession, including declining inflation, stable interest rates, and strong labor market and GDP growth.
Remote work has declined to its lowest point since the pandemic began. Around 26% of US households currently have a member who works from home at least once a week, according to recent data from the US Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey.
- At the height of remote work’s popularity in early 2021, that number was 37%.
- Nearly two-thirds of CEOs surveyed by KPMG predicted that full-time in-office work will be the norm again in three years, while just 7% said they believe in remote work’s staying power over the long term.
- Some 23% of workers in a recent ResumeBuilder survey said their manager shows up to the office less than they do. Only around a fifth of those workers said they were bothered by the discrepancy, however, while just under a third said they’re more productive at the office when their boss isn’t around.
- Amazon has authorized managers to fire workers who aren’t complying with the company’s policy of coming into the office three days per week, according to an internal memo viewed by Insider.
Workers are taking sick days more frequently. Some 30% of workers who have paid sick leave have used it this year, compared to 21% pre-pandemic, according to the benefits platform Gusto.
- Younger workers are driving much of the increase, with those 25-34 taking 45% more sick days than they did previously.
- Other reasons for the uptick include the rise of cases in Covid and RSV, as well as more workers using paid time off to care for their mental health.
- As some employers bristle at the added cost of more workers using sick days, a recent UK survey highlighted the ubiquity of “wellbeing washing,” in which employers highlight their wellbeing focus for workers without actually providing meaningful initiatives or support.
- One example of wellbeing washing: when companies mention employee-assistance programs and other wellness benefits during open enrollment and then neglect to remind workers of their existence throughout the year. “What they’re kind of hoping for is that employees don’t actually use those benefits because that costs money,” Mark Debus, clinical manager of behavioral health at the claims administrator Sedgwick, told WorkLife.
Here are some of the best tips and insights from the past week for managing yourself and your team:
- Ask “What if?” after getting a “no.” If your requests and proposals are consistently denied by managers, try gently pushing back with a solution framed as a question, such as, “What if we piloted it next month?” or “What if we tested a prototype with an internal team?”
- Create reference materials for using AI tools. Empower colleagues to adopt AI tools into their roles more easily by sharing a collaborative prompt library and keyword cheat sheet that explain common uses for chatbots and define relevant terms.
- Keep projects on track by systematizing follow-up. If your team struggles to meet deadlines, increase accountability by adding structure to your process, with regular reminders at set intervals and shared tracking tools to collectively monitor progress.
- Frame meetings in terms of individual purpose. Increase buy-in and engagement for attendees by making clear how the meeting will positively impact them, whether it’s advancing their career goals, improving their workflow, or increasing their individual impact.
Company swag gets a permanent spin. Workers at ZaLat pizza can count an unusual offering among their employee benefits: company-sponsored tattoos of the ZaLat logo.
- As employers get increasingly unorthodox with their offerings, other employers are giving workers access to ketamine therapy, pet bonuses, and free surfing lessons (with showers available at the office for a post-surf, pre-work rinse).
At least “crossed wires” means the same thing to everyone. Next time you tell a younger colleague you’ll be “out of pocket,” don’t be shocked by a raised eyebrow or a covert snicker.
- The phrase is also Gen Z slang for getting wild.
The handbook for this new era of business doesn’t exist. We’re all drafting our own as we go along—and now we’d like to start doing so together. You can sign up here to receive this briefing by email.