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What if AI could manage better than your manager?

Calvin Sprague
Illustration by Calvin Sprague
By Citrix x Quartz Creative

A wave of AI-powered technologies will hit the workplace over the next decade. It’s easy to see the potential impact they might have on menial and straightforward tasks. What’s less clear, however, is just how technology will change something once thought to be outside the grasp of artificial intelligence: management.

When we think of management, we tend to focus on just how human it is. It’s a team of people coming up with ways to solve problems, support each other, and aspire to be more than the sum of its parts. There’s no way an algorithm could replace that, right?

Well, yes and no.

Despite our idealized visions, the majority of management ends up being busywork. (The middle managers among us are likely nodding their heads enthusiastically right now.) A recent Harvard Business Review study found that managers spend more than half of their day tied up with administrative tasks—drafting reviews, managing schedules, approving expense reports, and so on. The rewarding parts of the job—coming up with new strategies and mentoring employees—accounted for less than 20% of their actual time.

It goes deeper than just lop-sided percentages. In 1998, social psychologist Roy Baumeister introduced “ego depletion”—the notion that our minds, like muscles, have a limited amount of energy. In 2005, marketing professor Kathleen Vohs and psychologist Jean Twenge expanded on Baumeister’s theory with the concept of “decision fatigue.” Every choice we’re forced to make grinds us down to where we end up making uninformed, indifferent decisions. As our to-do lists expand, our brains think less and react more. 

Sounds familiar, right? You spend all day making tough calls at work and don’t have any energy left to find nuance elsewhere. You reach for a favorite pair of pants, riff on the same pantry staples, and queue up a TV series you could quote by heart. It’s not that you don’t care about what you wear, eat, or watch, but decision fatigue leaves you less eager to try new things and experiences. 

The notion of an AI manager may seem unsettling—perish the thought of a cold and inhuman boss. However, the goal of management-by-algorithm is to take care of the tasks you don’t like to do to free you up for the tasks that matter.

Blockchains of command

AI management isn’t about taking your orders from a robot. It’s about using technology to arrive at more nuanced decisions faster. Imagine a world where you didn’t need to spend a chunk of your day compiling reports or scheduling meetings—your AI “assistant” would take care of all that for you. Instead, you could focus your time and energy on tasks that favor human brain power over the raw analytical might of AI. 

Citrix’s latest report, Work 2035: How People and Technology Will Pioneer New Ways of Working, outlines two broad outlooks for how technology could shape the workforce. One is atomization into a freelance-dominated, augmented workforce, and the other is merging into massive companies that leverage displaced workers. The report’s quantitative findings and panel of experts see the benefits of AI leadership falling in similar directions.

These visions of an AI-powered future are perceived differently among employees and employers. The disconnect is largely driven by anxiety (or lack thereof) around how new technologies will change the nature of work. Of the employees surveyed in Work 2035, one third believe that automation will replace over 50% of their company’s positions within the next 15 years. Business leaders, however, don’t see widespread job loss happening. 

Similar to how today’s companies outsource essential business functions like human resources or building management to save on salary costs, one Work 2035 scenario predicts that workplaces across the board could shrink as AI-powered platforms handle routine business functions like employee scheduling, accounting, and data analysis. Even established positions like CFOs could be replaced by algorithms that can monitor a company’s finances more efficiently. In our own lifetimes, we could see AI enter the C-suite.

While some jobs may be replaced, new roles will emerge. In this scenario, an entire industry of AI platforms and data brokers rises in the place of administrative roles and the managerial class that once supervised them. A new class of professionals, highly skilled AI engineers, and trainers appear as more companies adapt to technology taking care of their internal operations and analytics.

In practice, it looks like this: Large platforms make it easy to automate a majority of your business functions. You have AI that takes care of your accounting, maintains your supply chain, and manages your swarm of freelance labor. The human roles are now tasked with ensuring this suite of automation works towards a common goal. With low headcounts and the ability to swap out the AI running an entire department of your business, it makes more financial sense to become a leaner, more adaptable operation.

Over two-thirds of the professionals surveyed while producing the Work 2035 report think the most successful companies will be those that make the switch to this platform model. In this future, the secret to success isn’t coming up with your own industry-leading technology, but finding the right combination of contractors, AI services, and the datasets to power it all.

By 2035, companies gain market share by filling out hyper-specific roles instead of becoming monoliths—as 63% of professionals see technology as a boon to smaller companies, breaking down large sectors into smaller niches.

In a sense, everyone is a manager and no one is. With technology taking over the brunt of the work, employees are free to experiment, develop new skills, and find their niche in an ever-changing labor market. Because AI is now managing the manageable, people are free to become their own boss.  

Rising in the ranks 

While employees fixate on AI’s near term impacts, employers see the promise of new technologies to give their teams the headspace to solve problems AI can’t. This, some 67% of professionals believe, could lead to larger companies emerging over the next decade, as they have the resources at hand to pour into AI research and development. 

In this second future scenario, technology replaces human labor, but also makes human talent all the more valuable. Here, the focus driving human management isn’t so much increased productivity—the machines have taken care of that—but rather human ingenuity. Sure, AI will drive the majority of growth in the coming decade, but it’s up to humans to figure out how best to implement and improve this shift into an automated future. 

That’s not to say this future is one of complete harmony. Advances in AI move at such a rapid pace that employees’ work is constantly shifting. In companies that are largely run by AI, the value of human workers isn’t so much in their cumulative experience, but in their ability to learn and adapt in ways that AI cannot. It’s a symbiotic relationship—technology handles the raw number-crunching, while humans handle the creative problem-solving. 

In this second scenario, just like the first, AI will reach the C-suite. By 2035, 82% of business leaders believe that there will be a Chief Artificial Intelligence (not to be confused with a Chief AI Officer) on the leadership team of every company. Much like how AI assistants augment the rank-and-file to better prioritize tasks and find opportunities to improve their skill sets, the CAI’s powerful analytical ability will augment a CEO’s decision-making process. 

The role of the CAI isn’t so far off from what science-fiction has already imagined—a CAI could deliver new analytical insights that humans would otherwise overlook, which the CEO would then use to inform future strategy. On the flip side, a CEO could run something by the CAI to simulate potential outcomes. The CAI isn’t there to replace the leadership team but rather give them a better sense of the impact of their decisions. It isn’t piloting the ship, it’s telling you the odds of making it out of this asteroid belt in one piece.

While large companies and their named AI might seem like a novelty today, it’s likely that every business will have a visible AI presence on their leadership team. According to the Work 2035 report, 72% of professionals believe that in less than a decade, AI will drive more revenue than human workers, and that investment into technology will be key to success by 2030.

A peaceful transfer of power

If technology is going to make management decisions sooner rather than later, what does that transition process look like? 

For one, the value of human leadership and talent won’t be diminished. It’s easy to imagine robot overlords seizing power through their unignorable ability to perform superhuman feats of analysis and calculation. But the truth is effective leadership is driven by emotional intelligence, not raw analysis. One 2002 meta-study examining leadership traits found that the most impactful qualities of leaders were extroversion, openness to experience, and conscientiousness. 

AI will take on the more analytical decisions, but that doesn’t mean you will be reporting to a robot.

In fact, it’s far more cost effective for companies to keep employees and invest in retraining them to better adapt to technological change. According to the Aspen Institute, it costs 150-200% of an employee’s salary to replace them, but it only costs 10-20% of their salary to retain them. A recent MIT study found that companies already investing in training their employees in AI skills are 40% more likely to realize gains from automation compared to those companies that haven’t invested in employees. The study found that the costs associated with upskilling around AI will only increase the more widespread it becomes. 

Invest now in your human talent, because it’s only going to become more costly the longer you wait. 

Upskilling and retaining employees for AI-augmented management has benefits outside of balance sheets, too. Recall from last year’s WX course series (if you haven’t checked it out yet, you should!), there are huge benefits to freeing up your day from the drudgery of tedious administrative tasks. As neuroscientist Dr. Tara Swart explains in WX 103, if you find ways to reduce distraction and create opportunities for employees to practice mindfulness, you’ll cut down on stress and open up the brain’s creative pathways. 

Humans work best when they’re treated (and managed) like humans. When implemented correctly, technology helps workers and leaders alike have the time and space they need to do their best work.

Tell us what you think

Don’t forget to tell us what you think on social media with #Work2035.

Some more perspectives to be considered

This reading list gives you a more complete picture of what AI’s impact on management could look like over the next decade. (Don’t worry, we won’t tell your boss.)

This article was produced on behalf of Citrix by Quartz Creative and not by the Quartz editorial staff. Sources are provided for informational and reference purposes only. They are not an endorsement of Citrix or Citrix products.

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