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How Daniela transformed her working life with AI

We all feel rusty returning to work after an absence, whether it’s maternity leave, a sabbatical or vacation. No matter the reason for being away, the return to work can be challenging.

From something as simple as remembering passwords and procedures, to meeting new colleagues, slipping back into a familiar rhythm of work takes time, and it can take a while for the cobwebs and nerves to clear.

Daniela Ekholm, like many returning employees, faced the challenge of finding her feet after returning to work. A business controller at Microsoft Finland, she bid farewell to her colleagues before going on maternity leave for 12 months.

While maternity, vacation and sick leave regulations differ from country to country, the feeling of anxiety when returning to work after a long absence is one that transcends borders. Returning to work can see a decrease in family and leisure time, while other reasons for trepidation can include a loss of confidence, or discovering that things have drastically changed in your absence.

While these feelings are natural, it’s also possible to view the return to work as an opportunity to approach things with a fresh, re-energized mindset – something that Daniela herself found out when she eventually stepped back through the doors of Microsoft’s Helsinki office.

A new colleague

Two weeks into her return, Daniela was informed that as part of Microsoft’s broader digital transformation, artificial intelligence (AI) would drastically enhance her day-to-day work. The news was, understandably, a surprise.

When I came back and the AI system was introduced, I was scared about it taking over my job, but also excited. Scared because almost a quarter of my work – the data, the formulas, the calculations – would be automated, but also excited at the opportunities it could provide.

Daniela’s reaction is a common one seen in employees dealing with the introduction of new technology. AI in particular, is often stigmatized as a tool that will cause disruption, but when introduced and implemented properly, it can transform the way people work, bolstering their existing skills and abilities, as opposed to purely taking over tasks.

Prior to AI’s introduction, Daniela’s role was centered around budgets and sales forecasting. It was an intense process, that saw her and her team focused on sales forecasts, often for three straight weeks, leaving no time for anything else.

“Our work involved lots of data gathering, copy and pasting into various reports, crazy amounts of Excel formulas and so on. It was very time consuming. Now, thanks to AI, the data we need is pulled in automatically – it’s much faster. The biggest benefit was how it gave me so much extra time to spend on other things that have a business impact.”

Freed from crunching numbers and creating forecasts, Daniela could focus on other things, including training sessions to help progress her existing role. “Finally, I was able to refresh my soft skills, which helped me improve the way I communicated my findings to other colleagues. Not only that, but the extra time that AI provided also meant that I could join meetings I previously didn’t have time for, strengthening my working relationships.”

A nurturing environment

Technology like AI doesn’t always guarantee a positive change. A large part of successful integration comes down to the culture of a workplace. A company with a culture that doesn’t support workers in using technology to augment their skills, or give them room to tackle challenges in new ways, is unlikely to see major benefits from adopting new technology. The responsibility to foster the right environment falls to the leadership.

“In many ways, a leader’s day-to-day life is more protected from these major shifts than those of many employees,” says Lynda Gratton, Professor of Management Practice at London Business School, in the MIT Sloan Review.

The complexity of a leader’s work makes positive augmentation rather than replacement the most likely outcome of technological innovation.

For Daniela, her manager’s support helped contribute to her smooth return: “My manager’s guidance was amazing, and there’s so much training and support available at Microsoft. Workplace culture is key, and I think Microsoft’s cultural transformation is the reason that the introduction and implementation of AI went so smoothly. It doesn’t matter how good new technology is – if you don’t have the right culture and leadership, you’re not going to be successful.”

A flexible future

Beyond technology, supporting the flexible needs of working professionals goes a long way in achieving a healthy work-life balance.

Since returning to work, Daniela has collaborated with her team – which is distributed across Europe – remotely. Using technology has given Daniela more time for personal development, as well as the flexibility to spend more time with her family.

“The members of my team are basically everywhere and that’s the great thing about the technology we have – you can live and work wherever you like, and you don’t have to move.”

Daniela is continuing her development at Microsoft, while discovering the adventures of balancing her professional and personal life: “AI is a tool that makes me better. It’s like a sparring partner, a foundation for me to improve and build upon.”

“Now that I’m a mother, I’m even more grateful for AI – I don’t have the same hectic peaks I had before. Flexible working means it’s easy for me to pick up my child from daycare too. I’m very happy and thankful for my work-life balance.”