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AI & Workplace Productivity: Who benefits?

Workplace productivity has been a buzzy trend for a long time. There’s no shortage of productivity software and courses, along with an abundance of guru’s touting their own secret productivity enhancing recipes. Nowadays, most of those things include some kind of AI-enabled aspect to them. The reason to be excited about AI in the workplace - we are earnestly told - is that you will be MORE PRODUCTIVE! The beneficial awesomeness of this statement is supposed to be self-evident.

I’ve written previously about whether or not using AI actually results in productivity and how research has shown an uneven distribution of benefits. But there’s a another question that I think we need to grapple with…

Why should workers want more workplace productivity?

A scene that keeps coming to mind as I think about this question is from a classic television moment - Lucy and Ethel in the chocolate factory. The goal is simple - pick up the chocolate off the assembly line, wrap it and put it back on the line. It starts out manageable, but as Lucy and Ethel quickly learn, the demands of the modern industrial process are relentless. The machine can go ever faster. The supervisor is clear that if one piece of unwrapped candy gets past them they will be fired, leading the women into a choco-palypse that ultimately undermines overall results. Modern candy wrapping is now a mechanized process in all but the most, small bespoke operations, demonstrating that once automation can be implemented, it will be implemented. However, there is also an underlying assumption about productivity in this scene that seems so normalized that we may not even question it at all. 

Productivity in the workplace accrues to the business owners, not the workers. Business cares about productivity as an instrumental value, a way to drive greater outcomes in the form of financial gains. The drive to achieve those gains is insatiable.

GenAI and the modern assembly line

A modern Lucy and Ethel might be knowledge workers.  If they can, hypothetically, get a 25% increase in productivity from using a generative AI tool, but they still get paid the same amount of money, while working less hours, and their supervisor remains blissfully unaware of this, then the reason to use AI seems self-evident. Perhaps they even get a raise because they are producing so much high quality work. Some workers are secretly using AI-powered automation while accruing the benefits of more free time. As this BBC article reports:

"We had a significant competitive advantage against our colleagues – our output was so much faster and they couldn't comprehend how. Our manager was very impressed and spoke about our performance with senior management," he says.” (BBC)

Yet, historically the imperative of management is to speed up the line if management believes workers can go faster. For management, AI tools that can boost productivity are an instrumental means to growth or cost reduction. It’s only logical that they will require more work to be done by the same amount of people or to reduce the amount of people while holding production steady, or even better, increasing production while holding labour steady. 

“The research found the top business benefits that executives are most looking forward to from integrating AI into business operations include increased efficiency and productivity of employees (38%), the ability to make data-driven decision-making (35%), innovation in products and services (34%) and cost reductions (33%). Managers are also hoping for an increased focus on strategy over rote tasks (27%) and enhanced customer experience (18%).” (Computer Weekly)

It seems unlikely that the business outcome will be allowing modern Lucy and Ethel to accrue productivity benefits in the form of less time worked while retaining current pay, because that doesn’t directly result in financial gain for the business. There is also the threat of being fully replaced by automation, which is what happened in the chocolate factory. This might not happen right away, but historically, it eventually occurs. There's fear that if you participate in the automation of your job, you might be hastening your own demise. 

These are trust issues that workplaces are facing right now with respect to the use of generative AI tools. They are issues workplaces would be wise to pay attention to in order to negotiate a situation where both parties' interests are met.

Offloading the mundane, so you can be brilliant

As it stands, the way the tools are marketed to workers as being a benefit to them, is based on removing boring tasks or administrivia. Wouldn’t you like to get rid of the 25% of your work that you don’t like? Maybe that's what is stopping you from being BRILLIANT! If you unburden yourself from these tasks you'll have more time to be creative, thus driving some new, insightful value-added ideas. You get to do more of what you like and the business gets its productivity increase - win-win.

However, as anyone who has ever attended a scheduled brainstorming session on a Thursday afternoon at 2pm knows, it’s hard to be creative on demand. Simply having more time might not be the determining factor that leads to more brilliant insights. Spending more time ‘kibitzing’ with chatbots might not necessarily lead to actual business value either.

It's already a chocolate factory

There’s another element to consider - perhaps the workplace assembly line is already moving at high speed and like Lucy and Ethel, we're barely keeping up. In this circumstance, using AI tools is not so much about improving net new productivity. It’s merely a means to bring some level of sanity to our overburdened workplace situation. If that is the case, then AI tools might simply be a status quo preserver, rather than a productivity enhancer - which is not exactly a compelling sales message.

By Katrina Ingram, CEO, Ethically Aligned AI


Ethically Aligned AI is a social enterprise aimed at helping organizations make better choices about designing and deploying technology. Find out more at     

© 2024 Ethically Aligned AI Inc. All right reserved.


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