The launch of chat-based artificial intelligence like OpenAI’s ChatGPT has sparked debate about how the technology may change—or come for—the jobs we do. Now there’s evidence that using such tools at scale in the workplace can benefit employees.
A first-of-its-kind paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) finds surprising boosts to productivity, especially for workers who are new to the job.
NBER researchers studied the use of an AI chat tool that gave guidance to customer support agents at a business software company. During conversations with customers, the tool delivered chat suggestions to the agents, who were free to use or ignore them while troubleshooting.
It’s no coincidence that the researchers chose an AI tool built for support agents: The customer service industry appears to have one of the highest rates of AI adoption. In a McKinsey & Co. survey of businesses that deploy artificial intelligence, more than a quarter reported that AI figures in their customer service operations, outranking all other use cases.
Looking at the data from more than 5,000 support agents, the NBER research found that AI assistance markedly improved their day-to-day work: It boosted productivity, led to better customer interactions, and strengthened employee retention. Workers who used the tool resolved almost 14% more cases over the course of an hour and were less likely to leave their jobs.
The AI also improved how customers treated agents. “Customers often vent their frustrations on anonymous service agents and, in our data, we see regular instances of swearing, verbal abuse, and ‘yelling,’” the researchers write. But with the use of the tool, customer interactions became more positive.
“AI recommendations, which were explicitly designed to prioritize more empathetic responses, may improve agents’ social skills and have a positive emotional impact on customers,” the study notes. It adds that eliminating negative interactions—and the emotional labor of handling angry customers—can protect workers from burnout or leaving their jobs, too.
The benefits of AI for newer employees
In perhaps the most interesting outcome, AI assistance was especially useful for newer or less-skilled employees. When using the AI chatbot, agents with two months of experience performed as well as those with six months of experience. The tool helped flatten their learning curve, the study found.
“We find suggestive evidence that AI assistance leads low-skill agents to communicate like high-skill agents,” the researchers state, adding that the AI tool helped newer agents gain experience more quickly too. The overall benefits were also stronger within that group: Agents with fewer than six months of experience became even more productive and less likely to leave their jobs after using the chatbot. (On the other hand, the findings show, the AI tool helped more experienced employees considerably less with their work.)
The paper concludes that generative AI can make work easier for employees, lifting both their productivity and job satisfaction. But AI doesn’t do the work alone, the NBER researchers stress.
“Importantly, the AI system we study is designed to augment, rather than replace, human agents,” they write. In an age marked by anxieties that AI may automate us out of our jobs, it shows how the technology can work alongside people rather than displace them.