Office workers positive over AI but bosses must invest in training

07 August 2017 5 min. read

Almost half of office workers in the UK are optimistic about the impact automation technologies will have on the workplace of the future. While 48% of employees were hopeful for a future where new technologies transformed the world of work however, the cost of implementation and lack of infrastructure remain big barriers to the adoption of AI for UK businesses.

Professional services organisation Capgemini has revealed that many UK office workers remain optimistic of future automisation in their fields, despite perceived threats of digital disruption. The consulting firm, which is currently celebrating its 50th year in the business, commissioned independent research company Opinium to survey over 1,000 UK office workers at companies larger than 250 employees to explore their attitudes and expectations of cutting-edge technologies including automation, robotics, and artificial intelligence (AI), including machine learning. The data, gathered between February and March 2017, found that 40% of respondents believed machine learning would likely have a positive impact in the workplace along with 32% expecting the same from robotics. Only 10% of respondents felt automation would have a negative impact.

The research follows a recent projection that at current economic growth rates, AI will only replace 19% of the jobs lost after its implementation. The realignment of labour may not be confined to blue-collar work meanwhile, with AI increasingly being leveraged by consulting firms and companies to find solutions without less need for costly human input, even in administrative office environments. Still, the largest minority of 47% of respondents in Capgemini’s study revealed they have given serious thought to how automation technologies can support their department positively with its day-to-day processes – 85% among office workers responsible for finances – with large numbers already reporting having seen the benefits these could have, including freeing up staff time to do higher value, core business tasks (27%), lowering costs (25%) and improving the accuracy of results (21%).

UK office workers positive over AI but bosses must invest in training

In addition, business owners and directors, who were also part of the research sample, believe that as much as 40% of business tasks in their organisation could be automated in the next three to five years – a rate previous reports from consulting firms McKinsey and PwC have suggested may well be surpassed, projecting as many as 60% of jobs could be automated to some extent by 2055. Tasks such as invoicing (41%), managing expense claims (28%) reporting (28%) and administration tasks (28%) were all highlighted as having the potential for automation in the near future.

Digital and Physical

Although there is much optimism surrounding the benefits of automation technologies, office workers also noted a number of challenges to their organisation’s adoption, with an average of just under a third of respondents saying that implementation costs were the main barrier across all the technologies. Cybersecurity is most commonly seen as an obstacle to taking up AI (17%), with computing systems being viewed as liabilities in the wake of the WannaCry hack which hit the NHS earlier in the year – to the extent the UK is among the most sceptical nations regarding the use of AI in areas such as healthcare, in the world.

Time needed to implement, as well as skills and expertise needed, were also in the top five reasons cited as barriers, something a number of private and public sector employers have remained reluctant to invest in, with the notable example of UK civil service staff taking it upon themselves to upgrade their digital skills set in the absence of action from their management. Furthering this, one of the biggest problems businesses have to overcome is a current lack of adequate infrastructure to accommodate AI and automated technologies. More than seven in 10 office workers were either unsure, or knew their businesses didn’t have the infrastructure in place to adopt AI. Respondents had the most confidence in automation, but 60% still admitted they didn’t or might not have everything in place to adopt the technology, suggesting the knowledge gap also ties into the need for a remodeling of companies physical and digital infrastructures.

Lee Beardmore, Vice President and Chief Technology Officer of Capgemini’s Business Services Unit, remarked that it was encouraging to see the continued optimism for new technologies by UK office workers, regardless of various suggestions of negative impacts it could have, “At present our survey estimates that around 13% of businesses in the UK are benefiting from automation, but there’s still a lot that haven’t seen anything yet. We certainly expect this figure to rise in the near future as more and more businesses realise the transformational power of technologies such as AI, robotics and automation. All of these technologies represent an opportunity for growth for businesses in every industry sector.” 

Antony Walker, deputy CEO of techUK meanwhile said, “This survey is a useful reminder of the positive outcomes we will see from automation. Whilst it is clear that new technologies will have a transformational impact on many jobs, it is by no means inevitable that machines will simply be used to displace humans. Dynamic economies that harness innovation to drive productivity and economic growth remain the best generators of rewarding and meaningful employment. This study suggests that many of today’s workers see real benefits in technological innovation.”