Work seem like a treadmill? Actually, it is

People are overwhelmed with digital input and endless meetings. Artificial intelligences holds promise for fixing it.

You know darn well how meetings, email, and fiddling with documents make work seem like a treadmill of trivia. No one has any time to think, plan, envision, or acquire new skills.

Now we have the numbers to prove it, courtesy of the latest Microsoft study of workplace trends. I had the same thought as you: Thanks a lot, company that gave us email, electronic documents and Teams in the first place. But really, Microsoft makes a valuable contribution to helping people understand why artificial intelligence might improve work, not throw everyone out of work.

Among the findings: The top 25%  of email users spend 8.8 hours a week on it. The heaviest meeting users spend 7.5 hours a week in meetings. Microsoft surveyed 31,000 people worldwide and, in its words, “analyzed trillions of aggregated productivity signals in Microsoft 365.”

Meetings annoy the bejesus out of nearly everyone. Too many, too boring, too little getting done, and for many they occupy a whole day out of the week.

The pace of incoming, outgoing, redoing, forwarding, chit-chatting, attaching, replying all, calendarizing, smiley-facing, exclamation pointing, virtual backgrounding, unmuting — creates a gelatinous mass around productive work that Microsoft calls digital debt. It has “outpaced humans’ ability to process it all.” And, it blunts innovation and slows business. 68% of respondents said they don’t have enough interruption-free time in the day to focus.

So, no, you’re not crazy, and you’re not alone. People really are trying to wrap the chocolates on the conveyor belt.

In fact, people deal with multiple conveyor belts. At one time the average office employee had to deal with interoffice memos. Then came email. Now we’ve got texts, internal chat programs like Slack, and project management systems that generate messages. How many times has someone put a link or other information in the chat box on Zoom, and you’ve got to copy and paste it somewhere before the session is over?

Which leads to the question, as Microsoft put it, “Will AI Fix Work?”

Microsoft found that, yes, nearly half of people worry that artificial intelligence could eliminate their jobs. But two-thirds would gladly unload some of their drudgery on to an AI function.

The ChatGPT phenomenon has hastened the advent of AI, by putting it somehow into the vulgate. Anybody can fiddle with it and make it do something. ChatGPT is but one entrant in what’s becoming an AI gold rush. Biggies like Microsoft are also looking to deploy AI to enterprises.

Federal agencies already have experiments going with AI. This came out at the ACTIAC Emerging Technology conference earlier this week in Cambridge, Maryland. The chief technology officer of the State Department, Dr. Glen Johnson, has looked into generative AI. He said reports are coming in from the overseas embassies and consulates, that it accurately translates documents written by foreign national employees into English. It also translates English to even obscure language, such as a particular dialect used by some Syrians.

At the International Trade Administration, Chief Information Officer Gerry Caron wants AI “to tell me what I need to know.” That is, to synthesize from the myriad of inputs — that digital debt — what he need to deal with. Even with filters and alerts, the volume of email alone means you can easily miss something important. I know I do.

At a NextGov event, the chief technology officer of the Health and Human Services Department’s inspector general office, said she wanted AI to help a staff on which the department does not shower money. Text analysis and natural language processing, Nicole Willis said, could aid IG employees in getting to important matters faster.

There’s plenty to worry about with generative AI, and you don’t have to look far to find examples of how it can create nonsense with a patina of authority. Johnson of the State Department warned about blithely putting sensitive agency data into some AI company cloud, without an assurance of whether the data would be safe. Carnegie Mellon professor Tom Scanlan, at the ACTIAC conference, pointed out the danger of someone convincingly falsifying their credentials using a generated document — then getting hired by an agency.

Proponents of AI consistently say they don’t envision it replacing people. I think they’re generally correct. Besides making work more hectic and pressured, the so-called productivity tools have eliminated probably 80% of secretaries and administrative assistants. Maybe AI will bring them back in a disembodied fashion, and people can think again.


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