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How Offices Became the Modern Factory Floor

As robots replaced factory workers between 1995 and 2015, manufacturing productivity in the U.S. roughly doubled. However, during the same time, productivity growth of the world’s most developed economy was also the slowest it has been in 50 years.
Rapid improvements have since been made to economic productivity. For example, productivity soared with the introduction of connected computing power in the workplace. However, we’re no longer enjoying the benefits that computing once drove.
While computing has transitioned millions of people to working in front of a screen and continues to enable remote work, only 7% of office workers think they’re productive. In fact, nine out of 10 office workers say they spend less than one of every four hours working on creative ideas or leads. And the rest of their time? Spent on menial, repetitive, and administrative tasks.
It’s no wonder productivity has stalled. Offices have become, by and large, the proverbial “factory floor.”
The analogy, though, is not perfect. What characterized factory work -- monotony, isolation, repetition -- is what made it perfect for robots. It isn’t, or shouldn’t be, what defines productive, valuable human work.
Humans bring a unique empathy, intuition, and creativity to problem solving that even the best technologies, like artificial intelligence (AI), are far from mastering. The problem is that we have less time to do what we are truly good at because we’re spending most of our time doing what we can, theoretically, automate.
We copy/paste information a thousand times a week from disconnected software and systems. We generate manual reports of our activities weekly for our managers and stakeholders. We spend hours following up and keeping people looped in on projects and initiatives we’re involved on. These days, who isn’t a project manager?
Because of this, our output, or productivity, and our relationships with colleagues suffer. How can they not, when most of what we do is thankless administration that frustrates and distracts us?
So, bring on AI and, really, any other software that helps humans be our best selves. Let it do for us what robots have done for manufacturing. Let it allow us to leverage software, technology, and algorithms to outsource every copy/paste, manual reconciliation, and identical daily task that sparks no joy and keeps us from bringing our most valuable and human selves to our work.
As the line between life and work blurs and we look to rediscover purpose in the activity we spend 25% of our time doing, we should welcome the help technology offers.
The question is not whether AI should, but whether AI really can, deliver on that promise.