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  • Writer's pictureCarolina MIlanesi

Employees Want To Turn To AI Not Against It, Microsoft’s Latest Work Trend Index Shows

Microsoft released its latest iteration of the Work Trend Index, a study based on a survey conducted by an independent research firm, Edelman Data x Intelligence, among 31,000 full-time employed or self-employed workers across 31 markets between February 1, 2023, and March 14, 2023. Like previous studies, Microsoft has attempted to get to what is top of mind for both employees and leaders in the ever evolving knowledge worker world. 

The report focuses on three key aspects of the current relationship with work: how the digital debt is negatively impacting innovation, how employees look at leveraging AI and finally how they all will need to develop a natural ability to work with AI. 

Although most of the conversation thus far around generative AI has been focused on the negative impact the technology might have on jobs, the reality is that the current development of work will make AI a welcome ally to most knowledge workers. Since the start of the pandemic, the shift to digital and the growing volume of data every business is coming to rely on have increased the burden on workers and this is only going to get worse. Making sense of all the data and effectively run or digital workflows require a level of effort that has left many businesses worry about employees burnout. 

This is exactly where AI can come in and help alleviate the burden. 

“This new generation of AI will remove the drudgery of work and unleash creativity,” said Satya Nadella, chairman and CEO, Microsoft. “There’s an enormous opportunity for AI-powered tools to help alleviate digital debt, build AI aptitude, and empower employees.” 

The constant influx of data, emails, meetings, and notifications has resulted in a digital debt that we all carry. This overwhelming amount of information has surpassed our ability to process it all. As the pace of work continues to increase, everything seems important and we struggle to keep up. In fact, 64% of people report difficulty finding the time and energy to do their job. This struggle can also hinder innovation and strategic thinking. 60% of leaders are concerned about the lack of breakthrough ideas on their teams. Every minute spent managing digital debt takes away from creative work that leads to innovation. In a world where creativity is the new productivity, digital debt is not just an inconvenience - it’s impacting business. This is the digital debt that is holding businesses back today and will continue to do so unless we address the issue. 

It is interesting to notice, when looking at the study the time spent in Microsoft 365, almost 60% of time is being spent on communication, defined by Microsoft as Teams meetings, email and Teams Chat, The remaining 43% is being spent on creation across apps like OneNote, PowerPoint or Excel. In a briefing, Jared Spataro, Corporate Vice President, Modern Work and Business Applications at Microsoft  said “The data shows us that we love the the effortlessness of communication, but it does have a cost, make no mistake about it. We lack the time to focus on strategic thinking.”

Not all the time dedicated to communications is productive. There are still friction points that negatively impact our time where Microsoft believes AI can help. Meetings is a great example. People report that the number one productivity disruptor is inefficient meetings, followed closely by having too many meetings at number three. Most people say it’s difficult to brainstorm in a virtual meeting (58%) or catch up if they joined a meeting late (57%), that next steps at the end of a meeting are unclear (55%), and that it’s hard to summarize what happens (56%).

Interestingly, Spataro shared that Copilot for meetings is one of the most loved features recently rolled out to beta testers as it helps address some of the key issues surfaced in the study from helping organize information during and after the meeting to helping decide which meetings are a must attend and which could be done via a replay or a summary - today, only 1 in 3 people (35%) think they would be missed in the majority of their meetings. 

But how do employee feel about AI is for me the most interesting aspect of the study. Despite fears of AI taking over jobs, data shows that employees are more excited about AI lightening their workload than they are worried about job loss. While 49% of people are concerned about AI replacing their jobs, a larger percentage - 70% - would delegate as much work as possible to AI to reduce their workload.

People want AI to assist in almost every aspect of their work. Not only are 3 in 4 people comfortable using AI for administrative tasks (76%), but also for analytical (79%) and even creative work (73%). People also want AI to help them find the right information and answers (86%), summarize meetings and action items (80%), and plan their day (77%).

The optimism towards AI extends to its potential to enhance creativity. People believe it can help formulate ideas for their work (76%) and edit their work (75%). The more familiar people are with AI, the more they see its potential to assist with meaningful aspects of their jobs. For instance, 87% of workers in creative roles who are extremely familiar with AI said they’d be comfortable using it for creative aspects of their job.

Leaders too have a positive predisposition towards AI. They are certainly looking at AI and an enabler of better work. They are twice as interested in using AI to boost productivity than to reduce headcount. In fact, reducing headcount was the least valued benefit of AI among leaders. After “increasing productivity,” leaders’ top expectations for AI include assisting employees with repetitive tasks, improving employee wellbeing, eliminating time spent on low-value activities, enhancing employee capabilities, and accelerating the pace of work.

While these data is certainly reassuring, I cannot stress enough that organizations must be transparent about how they are planning on utilizing AI across the organization so they can put their talent at easy but also foster a responsible and ethical way to leverage AI. 

The shift to AI-first workloads will also require some level of training both at a technical level and an every day productivity workload level. Skills like critical thinking and analytical judgment, complex problem solving are going to be key. The value add that talent will bring to the collaboration with AI will be centered on creativity and originality as well as the personal experience we all have both of the company we work for and the business we are in. If we consider that the study shows that already today 60% of people say they don’t currently have the right capabilities to get their work done we cannot risk this number to grow. More importantly organizations must look at AI to accelerate and ease learning so talent can get the required skills not just to deal with AI but also the other hot areas of tech from cloud to security. 

There is no doubt that AI represents a massive opportunity for the workforce. However, in order to fully realize this potential and ensure that it benefits everyone, it will require intentional and deliberate action from leaders across organizations. This means actively working to integrate AI into the workplace in a way that empowers employees and enhances their capabilities, rather than simply replacing them. It will take effort and commitment, but the potential rewards are immense.

Disclosure: The Heart of Tech is a research and consultancy firm that engages or has engaged in research, analysis, and advisory services with many technology companies, including those mentioned in this column. The author does not hold any equity positions with any company mentioned in this column.



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