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As businesses adopt artificial intelligence (AI) to streamline or even automate many decision-making processes currently handled by humans, what will humans do with the time they’d have spent on these tasks?

In the intermediate term, AI gurus like Bob De Caux suggest the technology will be used primarily to help humans make better and faster decisions, and that we are some ways off from AI taking over key business functions. Increased per-employee productivity was a primary benefit the executives expect from implementing AI.

According to an IFS study, 90 percent of respondents were planning AI initiatives, and 60 percent expected these efforts to increase productivity. Only 15 percent said they supported something like a shortened work week, suggesting workers should instead be trained to use AI to do their jobs better. But even now, IFS teams are hard at work teaching AI algorithms to make common financial decisions in roles like accounts payable and accounts receivable—even doing basic forensic accounting. Technologies like this may enable a single AR or AP person to do the work currently completed by several people, and in time, could automate these roles entirely.

In some industries like construction, industrial maintenance and manufacturing engineering, a shortage of workers is already a real problem and automation of many of these tasks may well come earlier than in other industries. But as the more tedious elements of jobs are performed by AI algorithms embedded in business software like enterprise resource planning (ERP), what will people do with the time formerly occupied with these duties?

Shorter work week?

The idea of a shorter work week may have a hard time winning over executives and business leaders simply because it runs counter to conventional wisdom. If you are paying people, you want to get as much as you can for that spend.

But more is not always more, as Microsoft Japan and Scottish cosmetic and soapmaking materials supplier Elizabeth Carnahan’s Gracefruit found when they tried cutting back hours required of full-time workers. Productivity rose 40 percent at Microsoft Japan and was unchanged for the Scottish cosmetics supplier.

Even the newly-elected president of Finland, Sanna Marin, advocated for a four-day, six-hour work week at a forum prior to the election.

“I believe people deserve to spend more time with their families, loved ones, hobbies and other aspects of life, such as culture,” candidate Sanna Marin said. “This could be the next step for us in working life.”

And in February, the entire Valencia region of Spain announced plans to move to a four-day work week, starting with jobs in the public sector.

AI shorter work week

Change from the top down

Despite successes we are seeing from these early beta efforts and the inexorable trend towards enterprise AI, senior executives may be resistant to the idea of paying workers the same amount for shorter hours. In fact, in many corporate cultures, being present and available at all hours, taking calls or completing tasks while on vacation and staying late are either mandatory or evidence a worker is committed to the organization. Senior executives are the worst offenders—in a recent study, “44 percent of executives work an average of 52 hours a week, and that number increases to 58 hours among the 65 percent of senior executives who report working overtime.”

As new generations enter the workforce, it may be harder to convince them that slavish devotion and long hours will bring them success. Companies that have implemented sound enterprise-wide AI initiatives may be happy to offer a shortened work week, secure in the knowledge that hours and output are not directly linked. Preparing for this major economic shift will require more than technology—it will require executives to come to understand the ethical challenges AI presents.

Learn more with this brief whitepaper, Manufacturing Companies and the Ethical Questions of AI.

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