Featured in today's briefing:
- How new artificial intelligence tools will change workplaces.
- Are you a “splitter” or a “blender”?
- Return-to-office relationship strains.
The Macro Context
- Covid cases, hospitalizations, and deaths have all increased significantly in recent weeks, while rates of RSV and flu remain high. On Friday, new US covid cases were up 27% from two weeks earlier.
- Many public-health officials, including the health departments of New York City and Los Angeles, are now urging people, especially those at high risk, to resume masking in public.
- Wage growth is showing signs of slowing down in tandem with a cooling labor market.
Focus on How Generative AI Will Change All Knowledge Work
It’s becoming clearer that the next big wave of changes to how and where many of us work will be sparked by new applications of artificial intelligence.
Until now, the impact of AI on our jobs has been abstract for most workers, something that seemed to be out on the distant horizon. But the recent acceleration of applications around so-called generative AI is showing us how quickly and broadly our work will change. Some real-world examples:
- A doctor is having AI write medical letters to insurance companies requesting approval for treatments.
- Engineers are using AI to generate computer code, accelerating development time by 20% in one experiment Deloitte conducted.
- A San Francisco man used AI tools to write and illustrate a children’s book, which he published on Amazon, in a weekend.
The latest wave of AI tools generally doesn’t require technical skills and includes image generators, video editors, podcast audio editors, email-reply generators, word processors, computer coding assistants, research-paper summarizers, marketing copywriters, and much more. OpenAI’s Dall-E and ChatGPT services give you a quick sense of the power behind these tools. What makes these generative AI applications both concerning and exciting is that they can generate seemingly original content based on simple prompts from users.
In the coming months and years, these capabilities will undoubtedly improve and make their way further into tools knowledge workers are already using, such as word processors and email services. As an example, at Charter, we’re already using AI tools every day to transcribe audio recordings and create illustrations to accompany articles. Other immediate applications include drafting memos and emails, doing research, and generating ideas, as AI presents users with novel ideas and information we might not have come up with on our own.
There remain many vital gaps and concerns. Generative AI is trained on large corpuses of information, which encode the biases of that material. It usually doesn’t acknowledge or compensate creators for the work that it is built on—and changes to copyright law are urgently needed to recognize this. It’s prone to errors, some very obvious and some less so, and can be used to make so-called “deep fakes” that deceive people. I worry deeply that misinformation and spam will make the web unusable when AI can generate infinite quantities of content in this way. Teachers are rightly anxious that essay assignments—which can be completed instantly by free AI tools with impressive results—are no longer a reliable way to test for mastery of a subject.
I’m writing this on an AI-powered word processing service called Lex, which can suggest the next paragraph for you. To give you a sense of its power, it proposed this:
But the upside of generative AI is undeniable. It’s making us more efficient and creative, and opening access to new tools and new forms of expression. As with any technology, it will be up to all of us to slow down and think critically about how we use them and the effects they may have into the future.
That’s one point of view, for sure.
Techno-optimists predict that the jobs of most knowledge workers will change, though few will be entirely eliminated. As with most things, the pace of the change has critical implications. Will it be gradual, and akin to how Google search and the explosion of information on the web have altered how we do our jobs? Or will whole categories of workers, such as commercial illustrators and copywriters, effectively lose their livelihoods from one year to the next?
My expectation is that many of us will begin—and are already—encountering content on the web and in our workplaces that has been created by AI tools, without necessarily realizing. Users of these tools risk creating more unnecessary content in our already information-overloaded workplaces, lowering the bar for effort needed to create that extra email, memo, sales pitch, or presentation.
But these AI tools will surely streamline our work and take some of the annoyance and time out of drafting memos, replying to emails, and writing computer code. They’ll help us more quickly digest information such as research reports and make powerful multimedia editing tools usable through simple text commands. They’ll likely find rapid use in performance evaluation and project management, activities that rely heavily on generating and collating written prose.
The AI tools can require different skills and aptitudes of workers. One obvious one is being a good editor, deciding what to keep and what needs to change. With the AI text generators, you need to fact-check and make sure it all makes sense. The skill required is no longer generating the text but—presented with different plausible AI-generated strings of words about the topic—discerning whether any option is actually correct or modifying them to be so.
With image generators, you need to decide which image works best, tweak queries to improve them, and spot visual flaws (like misshapen hands). Code generators require that you review the code to make sure it does what it's supposed to and is easy to understand in the future. The skills are all—at least subtly—different from what’s required of humans to be good at generating content from scratch on their own. (The “prompt engineer” is a new role in this vein.)
Theoretically, generative AI tools could streamline our work so that we can work fewer hours and reduce our burnout. (That was the sort of future economist John Maynard Keynes imagined in 1930 when he predicted a 15-hour workweek.)
As Lex’s AI says, it’s up to us to decide how this plays out. But I have little doubt all knowledge workplaces will need to begin wrestling with the impact of generative AI in 2023.
Read our recent interview with Google’s James Manyika about how AI will change how we work. Read the MIT Tech Review and Harvard Business Review on how generative AI is changing creative work.
What Else You Need to Know
Some companies are turning to layoff alternatives to slash costs. After a brutal season of job cuts in industries from technology to media, CFOs at companies like Target and Jack in the Box are cutting costs by investing in technology and automation to make their organizations more efficient.
- “Most CFOs are very reluctant to let staff go in what seems to probably be a pretty mild recession,” Alexander Bant, Gartner chief of research for CFOs, told the Wall Street Journal. That’s largely because of the costs of re-hiring once the economy improves.
The wave of tech layoffs may be a turning point for “green-collar” employment. Of the more than 90,000 employees in the tech industry who have lost their jobs this year, a growing number are searching for new roles in the climate sector.
- The number of job listings mentioning climate-focused skills has grown 8% annually for the past five years, but the number of workers with those skills has grown just 6%, according to a LinkedIn report.
- “[There’s] lots of new talent entering the climate job market” right now, Evan Hynes, CEO and cofounder of the job board Climatebase, told Fortune. “The next phase that’s coming out of the Great Resignation and the Great Layoffs is the Great Realignment.”
Employees who feel accepted and valued by their employers are less likely to feel burned out. Some 30% of workers in a recent Gallup survey said they were suffering from burnout, and employees’ likelihood of burning out was more than twice as high whey they had also faced discrimination in the past year.
- Black employees in Gallup’s survey who felt strongly that they had the same opportunities for advancement as other employees were 55% less likely to say they frequently or always felt burned out.
New York City government officials have delayed enforcement of a law meant to audit the use of artificial intelligence technology in hiring. The law, which took effect in January 2022, requires companies to ensure the software systems they use to hire new employees are free of bias, but details on how companies should conduct those audits remains unclear.
- Companies now have until April 2023 to comply, as the city works to provide clearer guidance.
- The law also requires job candidates in NYC to be informed about the use of AI systems in the hiring process.
- “I’m hoping this is them saying they really want to get it right and want to listen to the people who will be tasked with complying with this,” Emily Dickens, the head of government affairs for the Society for Human Resource Management, told the Wall Street Journal.
As we approach the end of the year, we want to hear from you about what you think 2023 will bring. Charter has partnered with Nonrival, the newsletter where readers make weekly forecasts about work, business, and the economy, to bring you our own forecasting survey about the workplaces of the near future.
Earlier in 2022, we surveyed more than 500 business leaders on their current priorities, including hybrid work, childcare benefits, and mentorship programs. Take our survey to predict how those priorities will change when we repeat this survey in Q2 of next year (and how they'll play out at your own workplace!)
Return to workplace speed round:
- Citigroup will allow most of its employees to work from anywhere within their country of employment for the last two weeks of 2022.
- As companies work to keep their costs down, some have embraced remote work as a way to hire employees from lower-wage areas.
- The European Central Bank will increase its in-person requirements in the new year, allowing employees to work remotely up to 10 days a month. (For comparison, the current policy only requires employees to work at the office eight days a month.)
Here are some of the best tips and insights from the past week for managing yourself and your team:
- “Tone check” your written feedback. People often read a negative tone into neutral or even positive messages. To avoid that dynamic, buttress your positive feedback with unambiguous signals of warmth, encouragement, and gratitude.
- Try “loving-kindness meditation.” This practice, in which you picture sending love and goodwill to others, has been shown to increase feelings of empathy and connection to others more effectively than breathing meditation, which can lead individuals to focus solely on themselves.
- Shrink the elephant task. Task paralysis can happen when you’re feeling overwhelmed by the amount of work on your plate. Make a single, elephant-sized task seem more manageable by breaking it into the tiniest possible sub-tasks. To help you get into a groove, each of these steps should be concrete, specific, and time- and location-bound.
- Determine if your team members are “splitters” or “blenders.” A new Gallup report found that the workforce is evenly split between “blenders,” those who prefer to blend home and work responsibilities throughout the day, and “splitters,” those who prefer to keep the two worlds entirely separate. Ask your colleagues to communicate their preferences—it can help you plan hybrid work arrangements, manage team workflow, and enable you and your coworkers to protect your time.
The office return meets relationship drama. While many couples spent the pandemic learning to work from the same space without biting each others’ heads off, some are now facing a different kind of challenge: weathering the jealousy of one partner who has to resume their commute while the other stays home.
The emoji meaning is in the eye of the beholder. Intergenerational miscommunication abounds as Gen Z workers Slack their colleagues seemingly indecipherable combinations (fingernails emoji plus fire emoji means… what?) and older workers send smiley faces that, in the words of one 23-year-old software engineer, feel “dead in the eyes.”
- An Adobe report from earlier this year found that workers across generations have at least one thing in common: No one knows what the cowboy emoji is supposed to mean.
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.