What are the impacts of artificial intelligence on the workplace?

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The answer to that question is uncomfortable. The impact is likely to be big and largely unknown.

What we know is that AI, robotics and increased automation will cause considerable disruption in the way work is done. With these change there are winners and losers.

What we suspect is that certain tasks, such as those involving routine information processing, heavy physical labour and perhaps even driving, may require less human participation. Workers should probably plan for several career changes during a lifetime. Tasks that require a high degree of emotional intelligence and intellectual flexibility, like teaching or nursing may be more in demand. It might not hurt to learn more about coding, either. And because the future is uncertain, employers may look to temporary, task-oriented “gig” workers, possibility located all over the world, rather than a permanent, centrally-located workforce.

What we do not know is how soon and what the wider range of legislative and social response is likely to be.

But employers have dealt with the big and unknown challenges of new technology before. Much of the legal structure defining employer and employee rights and responsibilities is in place. But it may have to be applied in creative ways.


Plan for disruption


The “man versus machine” narrative may do more harm than good – far better to promote a “worker plus great tool” mindset, where possible. From a human resources perspective, it may be wise to begin to involve workers in discussions about better ways to accomplish tasks using AI and other technologies.  More tech-savvy workers may have a lot to offer.


Employers should also ensure that they understand their legal obligations with respect to the Work Health and Safety Act 2011, including their obligations with respect to cooperation, representation and the prevention of psychological harm.


Layoffs may happen, and they may disproportionately affect older and lower-skilled workers. If your business restructures or you must terminate employees for any reason you should seek legal advice to minimise the risk of a costly and time consuming disputes. Make sure that you understand minimum notice of termination or payment in lieu thereof requirements and minimum statutory redundancy or severance pay rules. This would also be a good time to review the details of any individual contracts or industry-based awards.


Apropos of human resources issues, what new challenges will AI and other technologies pose for the protection of the private information of workers or of customers and clients? The improvements that make data more usable within an organisation can also make it easier to misuse or to steal. Businesses may have to take a fresh look at whether existing systems to protect information will continue to be adequate.


The new shape of work


In times of uncertainty, employers often opt for more flexible staffing arrangements, including the hiring of independent contractors instead of employees. You should be careful to know the difference and not to fall into the trap of simply misclassifying workers in order to sidestep certain legal obligations typically owed to employees.


Tasks performed online from remote locations can present particular legal puzzles. What law applies when a dispute arises between a worker in the Philippines and a contractor in India who delivers a finished work product to a business in Australia? The contracts that govern these arrangements will have to specify applicable law and may have to provide extra layers of financial security in the event that enforcement in a foreign country against a foreign national is impracticable.


Rather than opting for “gig” workers, some employers may decide to commit to a small permanent work force and a very large plan for periodic retraining. Is it practicable to condition continued employment on the acquisition of new skills? Might this expose an employer to claims of discrimination? On the other hand, might greater use of AI and other technologies open up the workplace to those whose full participation is now limited by disability or other life circumstances?


New laws?


Legislation tends to follow rather than precede technological change. As Australia wades further into the new world of work, it may become clear that the legal and ethical rules developed in response to twentieth-century industrialisation are no longer adequate. What then?  Employers must realise that their early experience and feedback to elected representatives will help shape the rules of the future.


If you have questions about how AI and other forms of technological change will affect the legal landscape in your workplace, please call the attorneys at Owen Hodge Lawyers at 1800 770 780 to schedule a consultation. We look forward to working with you.


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