‘A robot stole my job!’

‘A robot stole my job!’

How can organisations manage employee fears regarding the introduction of AI? Kylie Dunn, Liz Blythe, Laura Cole and Zoe Sims of Russell McVeagh share some pointers.

With all the hype around AI, it can be easy for organisations to overlook a crucial part of the success, or failure, of implementing new technology – their employees

AI technologies promise many organisational benefits, including the potential to transform the customer experience, create organisational efficiencies and foster economic growth. With all of this hype, it can be easy for organisations to overlook a crucial part of the success, or failure, of implementing new technology in its organisation – employees.

AI technology is already disrupting traditional ways of working, and in many cases, challenging organisational policies, practices and methods. This has led to fears around job and career security and value, with there being no shortage of commentary focusing on whether "robots will take our jobs".

This has the potential to create feelings of distress, uncertainty, insecurity and distrust, particularly if there is a perception that an employer is collecting additional information about employees that could in future be used against them, or to replace them. How an organisation manages this, can determine the success or failure of the implementation of such new technologies in their business.

So how do we manage employee fears regarding the introduction of AI? There is no magic answer, but there are some key questions that an organisation should ask itself before implementing any kind of technology that may impact employees' rights or day-to-day work activities.

Why do we need it?

The first consideration should always be assessing why the technology is required and how it will accomplish an organisation's needs. A detailed operational needs assessment, which identifies and characterises gaps in existing capabilities and how the technology will fill these gaps, can be a useful way to craft a vision for change. A compelling vision can be a great way to help staff understand what the organisation wants to achieve, why the change is important and how it will make the employee's job better.

Can we do it?

Although there are only few laws that relate to AI technology directly in New Zealand, there are many laws that relate to the rights of employees. It goes without saying, that it is important to ensure that the technology, and its application to the workforce, complies with each employees' employment agreement, the Employment Relations Act 2000 and any other relevant requirements such as the Privacy Act 1993.

What do employees think?

A 2019 study by SEEK found that the majority of New Zealanders surveyed see AI as a threat rather than an opportunity.

With this in mind, and our often natural resistance to change, it is easy to see how achieving employee buy-in can be critical to staff embracing change and implementing the technology with minimal disruption and to maximum positive impact.

Where possible, organisations should consult staff about the proposed change prior to the decision to implement a particular technology is made.

In many cases, consultation will be required by law. Consultation should, include details of the technology, how it works, its capabilities and benefits. However, employee buy-in into the consultation process will likely be low unless the employee feedback is (and is seen to be) understood, genuinely considered, and where reasonably possible, acted on. If employees understand the technology and feel genuinely involved in the implementation process, they may be more forthcoming with their buy-in.

How will we succeed?

New Zealand, like many other countries, is experiencing a shortage of skills in the technology sector.

Organisations may need to adopt new policies and procedures to ensure that it has the talent required to support the implementation of the new technology.

For example, this could require an organisation to invest in upskilling its current workforce or the creation of new duties or roles.

Similarly, the technology may result in existing roles becoming superfluous to requirements. In that case, organisations will need to consider whether any of these positions can be repurposed and if not, whether redundancies or a restructure will be required (and adopting a sound implementation policy in that regard).

Case law in the employment context is littered with examples of employers who faced opposition from employees and unions who had not had a satisfactory opportunity to engage with and understand the implications of technological change.

Considering the impact of new technology on employees is a key part of ensuring that an organisation gets the most out of its investment in AI technology.

With a bit of prior planning and consultation, it is possible to secure the buy-in of your workforce and ensure that the organisation is in the best position to reap the organisational benefits that AI technology promises.

Kylie Dunn is Employment Partner, Liz Blythe is Technology Partner, Laura Cole is Senior Solicitor (Employment) and Zoe Sims is Solicitor (Technology) at Russell McVeagh

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