Even if it's taking less time, it's taking a greater toll: Compensation in the age of AI

Employees' jobs are changing – whether it's with chatbots or billable hours – and HR has a big role to play, says HR academic

Even if it's taking less time, it's taking a greater toll: Compensation in the age of AI

As AI, machine-learning and other technologies become bigger parts of the everyday routine of many workers’ jobs, should the way they are paid be affected?

Further, how should that be determined, and who’s making the decisions? The legal field, where large sums of money are traditionally made through billable hours, has been eyeing the question for some time, as more firms use AI to cut down on time-consuming associate’s work, according to David Cohen, senior director, client service delivery at McCarthy Tétrault.

And it’s a conversation that should be happening right now between employers of all sectors and their regulators, says one HR academic.

AI tech making some jobs more complicated

Sima Sajjadiani, assistant professor of organizational behaviour and human Resources at the U.B.C. Sauder School of Business, has been researching how AI and humans can collaborate to perform human resources functions, and observing the technology racing ahead while legislation lags behind.

“This is the time to talk about it, before workers get impacted negatively, especially people who are on a minimum wage or an hourly wage,” she says.

Although AI will undoubtedly make work faster for some, meaning potentially fewer hours worked for less pay, for many it will mean their jobs are more complex and more cognitively demanding, Sajjadiani says.

But whether not the employees who are adapting to entirely new work processes – usually on-the-job – will be compensated accordingly is yet to be seen.

“Another piece of work that is being added to their work is fixing AI errors, because we have seen, even with OpenAI, generative AI, they make so many mistakes,” she says. “That’s an important consideration for organizations. The nature of work is getting more complex – even if it’s taking less time, it’s taking [a greater] toll on employees — more cognitive ability is required for doing the same job.”

AI does easy work, leaves tough stuff to humans

In her work with call centre employees, Sajjadiani has observed that straightforward calls that can be handled easily are now taken care of by AI chatbots. What that means is that the only calls the employees are responsible for are the more complicated ones, often with customers who are already annoyed because they’ve just had an unsuccessful experience with an AI chatbot.

When they also dealt with easy calls, it inherently gave the call centre employees “breaks” between the complex or stressful calls, but now these workers are performing more demanding work for the entirety of their shifts.

“The hours may be fewer, let's say, but the amount of work, the amount of cognitive ability that is required, the amount of skills and knowledge required to do the same job, will be higher,” says Sajjadiani.

“Let's say before, you were giving the person $20 per hour to do that, because it had some easy components. Now you should increase it, but organizations probably are not going to do that without pressure from the public and government.”

Employees need equal access to AI skills and knowledge

Another factor that concerns Sajjadiani is the matter of access to knowledge and training, which currently is a patchwork of some employers offering training to varying degrees and some offering none at all, leaving employee uptake of skills largely self-directed.

This will leave many workers who don’t have the time or resources to teach themselves the increasingly in-demand skills they need to do the same jobs will be left behind.

“We need to prepare people equally to work with these tools. These tools should be at our service, not making our lives more difficult,” says Sajjadiani. “These are very important things that organizations should be pressured to take into consideration, because we know they don't do it on their own — their only goal is maximizing profits.”

HR’s next big task for AI and compensation: job analysis

Any HR professional who wants to stay ahead of their workforce’s evolving roles, needs and values has a big task in front of them, she says, because they need to re-evaluate the jobs of everyone in their organization, not only right away, but more often than before.

“We have been operating based on these very traditional job analyses … and we are compensating, we are training, we are evaluating all of these jobs based on that,” says Sajjadiani, explaining that with the implementation of AI into most professions and fields, HR needs to update the jobs of employees – what they entail, the human capital required, and where AI is contributing.

“These jobs are shifting so quickly, and the knowledge, skills, abilities that are required for the jobs,” she says.

“I think the first thing to change to understand these jobs is that job analysis, and understand that the requirements of the job, the job activities are changing, so we need to better understand the jobs of the future and the needs of our organization. We design these jobs, and hopefully that's a starting point for HR departments.”

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