Why AI might make us have fewer friends at work

  • Artificial intelligence could make us more productive and take away some of the drudgery at work.
  • But if we all just interact with AI, we’ll forget how to work with each other, one CEO told BI.
  • AI could help if it gives us more time to work on challenging tasks with our coworkers.

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First, you had to worry about artificial intelligence taking your job. Now you have to wonder whether it will snatch your work friends.

Technology like AI already threatens to make us lonelier by chipping away at some of the small interactions with others that might seem trivial, but that have a powerful effect on our wellbeing, according to Business Insider’s prior reporting.

Now, it’s easy to see how AI might make us feel more alone at work, too: Instead of going to a coworker for a second opinion, we might get a faster and smarter answer from an AI tool, researchers who looked at AI in the workplace found. But being that much better at our jobs doesn’t come without a cost.

It could mean there’s less time devoted to interacting with our peers. These worries come as more young people already report being lonely thanks to the outsize role tech plays in our lives. On top of that, workers are concerned they don’t know enough about AI to keep up.

“I call it, ‘There’s no AI in team,'” Jennifer Dulski, CEO and founder of Rising Team, a team-development platform, told BI. “It has the risk of further disconnecting us the same way hybrid work initially did because if everybody’s just interacting with AI all the time, we forget how to work with each other.”

She said so-called soft skills, empathy, and teamwork will become even more important as AI takes over aspects of our jobs. In effect, people will be left to do the stuff humans are best at doing.

AI could make us hungry for human connection

AI’s move into the workplace doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. Of course, it could give a big boost to productivity and save us from some of the more mundane yet stress-inducing tasks like email that somehow fill our days, BI previously reported.

Research points to a potential bright spot: All of this interaction with AI could make us more hungry for the real thing — for human connection. That’s a view shared by André Martin, an organizational psychologist and author of “Wrong Fit, Right Fit.” He told BI that AI could free up time for leaders, for example, by taking over some of the drudgery that’s a part of most jobs.

“If AI could get rid of some of those administrative tasks, it actually opens up the door for us to have deeper, richer, better connections, more innovation, more collaboration, more time — if we choose to put it there,” Martin said. One danger, he said, is that if AI takes over more of our jobs, we just add to our to-do lists rather than find ways to connect with others at work.

That lack of connection — not just at work — is a worry for many of us when it comes to AI, according to a survey from the Pew Research Center released in 2022. The snapshot, which involved about 10,000 people, found that “lack of human connection, qualities” was the No. 3 reason that those worried about AI cited.

When workers aren’t tied in with each other, it can be bad for the bottom line. People who have work friends are more likely to stick with a job — and they’re also more productive, engaged, satisfied in their jobs, and less stressed, BI previously reported.

We might connect with peers more if work gets less boring

It’s possible that by stripping away some of the drudgery at work, we’d not only have more time, but we’d also be more willing to get to know our coworkers. Martin said having too many meetings on our calendars can make us too focused on tasks and less willing to ask our coworkers about their days or how we might help them fix problems.

For those problems that can’t be solved by an AI copilot, we might do well to turn to colleagues for help — maybe even by, gasp, picking up the phone and calling them. That human interaction can help make us less lonely. That’s because connecting with others is a biological necessity.

There’s also a surprising benefit that AI at work could bring. It might make us feel respected, Vladimir Lukic, global leader, tech and digital advantage, at Boston Consulting Group, told BI. This might come down to simple things like workers believing an employer is using AI to make their jobs easier or just to remain competitive — and to stay in business.

A study conducted in part by BCG found that companies draw benefits from AI when their workers also do so.

“The companies that were embedding it had the most engaged workforce and highest energy,” Lukic told BI, referring to AI.

High engagement has been shown to result in happier employees — and in workers whom colleagues rate more favorably as teammates. Maybe that will help fight off loneliness on the job even as we work alongside AI.

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Tim Paradis