In late 2022, generative AI experienced a rapid rise in public awareness and use that caused waves throughout the workforce. From relative obscurity came a new technology that was free to use and could ease some of work’s most monotonous tasks. The promise of these newly released AI tools was to augment workers and unleash a new era of productivity. It’s no wonder that most workforce leaders say they are personally embracing generative AI. But what does this adoption curve look like more broadly, and how will it impact the workforce?
To understand the early impact of generative AI on the workforce, Upwork surveyed 1,400 U.S. business leaders—senior managers through C-suite level—across various industries about using generative AI and what it means for their businesses. We found that generative AI adoption rates depend on who you ask, what industry they work in, and—surprisingly—the degree to which the company embraces remote work. Perhaps most interestingly, and contrary to some of the "doom and gloom" headlines portending a downsizing of workforces due to generative AI, the C-suite views it as a reason to hire.
Key findings from the survey
- Companies will hire more as a result of generative AI. 49% of business leaders say they will hire more freelancers and 49% say they will hire more full-time employees. 64% of C-suite respondents say they will hire more professionals of all types due to generative AI, the strongest level of agreement among those surveyed.
- There is a disconnect between the C-suite and their leadership team around whether or not their company is embracing generative AI. 73% of C-suite executives say that their company embraces generative AI, compared to only 54% of VPs, 52% of directors, and 53% of senior managers.
- Remote-first companies are more likely to embrace generative AI. 68% of full-time remote companies say they are actively embracing generative AI, compared to only 53% of companies that are full-time in the office.
- Midsized companies are leading generative AI adoption. 62% of midsized companies (501-5,000 employees) say they are leveraging generative AI, compared to 56% of small companies (251-500 employees) and 41% of larger companies (5,001+ employees).
- The majority of business leaders are personally using generative AI. 59% of business leaders say that they are personally embracing generative AI tools like ChatGPT and Midjourney.
Are businesses adopting AI? Depends on who you ask
When looking at AI adoption, responses largely differed based on the respondent’s role within the company. Notably, C-Suite executives are far more bullish on their organization's embrace of generative AI. Nearly three-quarters (73%) of C-suite executives believe that their organizations are actively using generative AI. Senior Managers and Directors, often the level at which work is operationalized, are far less likely to agree that their organization is embracing generative AI, at 53% and 52% respectively.
Why is this disconnect so pronounced? Early signals from our open-ended survey questions suggest that concerns regarding early adoption and potential risks associated with generative AI are paramount. For example, one respondent said, “I fear too much reliance on AI, at the expense of customer satisfaction.” Another said that their organization was “...blindly trusting the AI tools.” And yet another stated, “I fear the capabilities of AI may expand faster than business can act to put controls in place to guard against the harm they can do.”
Other respondents were skeptical and unsure of the ROI their organization would gain from these new tools. One of our participants stated, “I fear that AI is highly overblown and will divert resources from more productive programs.”
Concerns were also raised around job displacement. An IT leader stated, “With technology like AI, it is making people very nervous about the future of their jobs, especially anything to do with IT because they don’t want to go to college for a job that will be taken over by a computer soon.”
So while there is much excitement around generative AI, especially in the C-suite, that optimism is not necessarily trickling down to the people who need to operationalize this technology. To be overcome, the fear, uncertainty, and skepticism that mark the workforce’s sentiment around generative AI needs to be acknowledged by C-suite leaders.
To bridge this gap, C-suite executives should roll out a change management strategy. This strategy should include communicating the expected outcomes for their workforce in relation to generative AI adoption, setting clear policies, and embracing a culture of a learning orientation.
Leaders should encourage their teams to use generative AI tools in their work (adhering to any company usage policies), take courses and skills training, and hire outside experts to teach and consult on generative AI best practices. Generative AI can be a powerful tool, but it requires some knowledge and experience for businesses and individuals to harness its full potential.
Remote business models correlate with use of AI
Lastly, our survey revealed that companies that enable remote work are much more likely to use generative AI. 68% of full-time remote companies say they are actively embracing generative AI, compared to only 53% of companies that are full-time in the office.
The relationship between these two seemingly unconnected trends is likely due to the logistical advantages of remote work. One of the chief complaints about remote work is the inability to “tap someone on the shoulder” when you have a question. And while the ability to search for a particular topic or answer on the internet has been available for decades, the conversational nature of generative AI offers the ability to problem-solve in real-time for remote workers.
Generative AI provides remote professionals with another tool to enable their productivity and success. In addition, we hypothesize that leaders who are already embracing new ways of working, such as adopting remote and flexible work, are more likely to experiment with new technologies like AI. Our data shows a significant correlation (r=.376, p <.001) between these two innovative behaviors—embracing remote work and emerging technology adoption.
Midsized companies leading the generative AI adoption
Along with respondents’ role within a company, their company size was another area where we found differentiation in the acceptance of generative AI. Midsized companies are ahead of both small and large companies in generative AI adoption rates. 62% of midsized companies (501-5,000 employees) say they are leveraging generative AI, compared to 56% of small companies (250-500 employees) and 41% of larger companies (5,001+ employees).
While there are likely a variety of factors that contribute to the difference in the adoption of AI by company size, one explanation could be that small and midsized companies were ahead of the curve in investing in and integrating AI. According to a 2021 Deloitte study, midsized and small companies took advantage of more affordable AI tools and services that strengthened their competitive position against larger companies.¹ This early investment could explain the higher adoption of generative AI among midsized and small companies.
Generative AI is spurring hiring
Contrary to some headlines, when asked about staffing plans due to generative AI, 49% of business leaders said they will hire more freelancers and 49% said that they will hire more full-time employees.
When asked the same question, 64% of C-suite respondents said they will hire more professionals of all types due to generative AI, the strongest level of agreement among those surveyed. As with other new technologies, companies that want to adapt quickly will likely need to rely on new hires and outside specialists.
We’ve already seen an uptick in activity around generative AI on the Upwork platform. When looking at the average weekly number of search queries related to generative AI, we saw a 1000%, or ten times, increase from the fourth quarter of 2022 to the first quarter of 2023. Similarly, the number of weekly job posts related to generative AI increased by more than 600% over the same period.
As businesses and leaders start to embrace generative AI, they must consider how to best harness its potential both for their workforce and business. That begins with leaders recognizing the initial–and very natural–sentiments of fear and uncertainty that the people on their teams are experiencing. Leaders should make it clear that AI is a force multiplier for team members and the business, an amplification effect and not a substitution effect. Teams should be encouraged to use generative AI to support their work in order to enable newfound productivity and creativity. The more the workforce can see the benefits of its use, the less likely we will see the disconnect we are seeing today.
The study was conducted by independent research firm ClearlyRated. 1,400 U.S. business leaders—senior managers through C-suite level—were surveyed through a third-party independent online sample in May 2023. A descriptive analysis was conducted to compare business leader cohort responses within our sample. Statistically significant differences are reported.
Disclosure: Upwork is an OpenAI partner, giving OpenAI customers and other businesses direct access to trusted expert independent professionals experienced in working with OpenAI technologies.
Upwork does not control, operate, or sponsor the other tools or services discussed in this article, which are only provided as potential options. Each reader and company should take the time to adequately analyze and determine the tools or services that would best fit their specific needs and situation.
¹ K. Ramachandra, V. Dhir, & P. Krumkachev, Cloud helps accelerate midsize companies’ AI adoption