The smartest way to use AI at work

Productivity boosts from AI are estimated to be worth trillions of dollars over the next decade, say consultants. (Image: Pixabay)
Productivity boosts from AI are estimated to be worth trillions of dollars over the next decade, say consultants. (Image: Pixabay)

Summary

Generative AI tools can help you get ahead in the office—if you know how to use them.

Day by day, there’s growing pressure at the office. Do you respond to all those clients—or let AI do it? Do you attend that meeting—or do you send a bot?

About 20% of employed adults said they have used OpenAI’s ChatGPT for work as of February 2024, up from 8% a year ago, according to Pew Research Center. The most popular uses for AI at work are research and brainstorming, writing first-draft emails and creating visuals and presentations, according to an Adobe survey.

Productivity boosts from AI are estimated to be worth trillions of dollars over the next decade, say consultants. Many companies are encouraging their workers to embrace and learn the new tools. The industries that will benefit most are sales and marketing, customer care, software engineering and product development. For most workers, it can make your day-to-day a bit less annoying.

“If you’re going to use it as a work tool," said Lareina Yee, a senior partner at the consulting firm McKinsey and chair of its Technology Council, “you need to think of all the ways it can change your own productivity equation."

Using AI at work could get you fired—or at least in hot water. A judge last year sanctioned a lawyer who relied on fake cases generated by ChatGPT, and some companies have restricted AI’s usage.

Other companies and bosses are pushing staff to do more with AI, but you’ll need to follow guidelines. Rule No. 1: Don’t put any company data into a tool without permission. And Rule No. 2: Only use AI to do work you can easily verify, and be sure to check its work.

ChatGPT is easy to play around with. For one, version 3.5 is free—though the $20-a-month ChatGPT Plus (which includes GPT-4) delivers better results. Your company might already pay for AI tools from Google or Microsoft, so start there.

Whether you’re self-employed or working at a Fortune 500 company, these are four areas where AI can help. We’ve gathered the best starting phrases (aka “prompts") and the neatest tricks to try in each category. (In this guide, we’re avoiding scenarios where AI gives advice or makes up its own information.)

Email

Coolest Trick: Summarize lengthy email threads.

Do: Add your own touches to drafts so they sound more natural. 

Don’t: Use vague prompts that go nowhere—and don’t overdo the proofreading tools.

Email is annoying, but it isn’t going away. AI can make responding to messages easier.

Using a free version of Microsoft Copilot or Google’s Gemini chatbots, prompt the tool to write words of encouragement, a time-off request or some other email premise. In seconds, you’ll get a workable, if bland, draft. Based on our tests, ChatGPT Plus delivered impressive results on the first try. The free ChatGPT did fine, but gave less detail than its subscription counterpart.

To get AI inside your email service, you or your employer has to pay. For $20 a month, Copilot Pro lets Outlook users draft, proofread and reply to emails, and summarize long email threads. If your company pays for Microsoft’s enterprise version, Copilot can reference files saved in your corporate cloud.

The Google One AI Premium plan, also $20 a month, integrates Google Gemini in personal Gmail accounts. Email thread summarization is coming soon, but for now, the Help Me Write feature helps you draft and tweak emails. We got better results entering prompts in the stand-alone Gemini chatbot.

For $30 a month, or $144 a year, Grammarly’s premium generative-AI service can appear in most text windows on your Windows or Mac computer. You can write prompts, personalize your voice and set your preferences for later.

SAMPLE PROMPT: Write an email to my direct report, Steve, asking him to find time on my calendar to discuss the projects he’ll work on while I’m away next week. Write in a friendly but assertive way and keep it short, no more than two paragraphs.

Presentations

Coolest Trick: Turn your notes into PowerPoints with Copilot for Microsoft 365.

Do: Include enough slide elements in PowerPoint for fun, unique layout options.

Don’t: Get discouraged by bad PowerPoint images—Microsoft’s Designer is better.

Copilot Pro helps users generate, organize and understand PowerPoint presentations. While only enterprise users can feed it files to create richer presentations on the fly, Copilot Pro users can still prompt the bot to add images to slides.

Caveats: You have to add images one at a time, and you get better results if you use Microsoft’s stand-alone Designer to generate images, then bring them over.

Designer in PowerPoint offers unique slide layouts based on information in the presentation. If you have a list of dates on a slide, for example, Designer might suggest a timeline with those dates already inserted.

Personal account users who pay for Google Gemini can have the bot generate unique backgrounds and images within Google’s Slides app. (Just don’t ask for people since Google disabled that feature following backlash over its inaccurate depictions of race and ethnicity.) Users of Gemini for Google Workspace will soon be able to prompt the bot to create slides based on Gmail and Drive content, a Google spokeswoman said.

ChatGPT won’t construct full presentations, but it can provide slide text based on prompts. ChatGPT Plus can create slide segments from uploaded documents. We asked it to turn a 25-page PDF file into seven slides, and it wrote text for each slide, including two suggested titles and a bullet list of key points.

SAMPLE PROMPT: Generate a watercolor image of a pink robot dancing in the rain.

Summaries

Coolest Trick: Get key points from YouTube videos without having to watch them. 

Do: Ask chatbots to explain complex topics or findings in a way that you understand. 

Don’t: Overload the bot with long videos or files.

Wordy, boring documents? Chatbots love them. Free tools like Copilot in Microsoft’s Edge browser can summarize webpages, articles, PDFs or other sources you only have time to skim.

ChatGPT only allows Plus subscribers to upload files. Other AI tools such as Perplexity and Anthropic’s Claude let you upload a few limited-size files free. Turning on the Google Workspace extension in Gemini chat lets you refer to emails and files in Docs and Drive, so you can ask it to summarize information you already have saved there. (Beware: In our testing, it made some mistakes like making up names for people.)

Copilot, Gemini and other bots can summarize and provide timestamps for videos with transcripts. Gemini users need to turn on the YouTube extension in settings. Copilot in Edge can answer questions alongside open YouTube or Vimeo pages.

Video summarization can be hit or miss, especially when the videos are more than 30 minutes long.

SAMPLE PROMPT: List the five key points discussed in this video in a bulleted list.

Meetings

Coolest Trick: Send your bot to meetings for you.

Do: Cross-check confusing notes and ask bots about previous meetings.

Don’t: Use external monitoring services in company meetings without permission.

Otter.ai’s OtterPilot can join meetings on Zoom or Google Meet and take notes for you, even if you can’t attend. The AI generates a transcript and notes, which include a brief summary, an outline and a to-do list. Its chat function can catch you up on what you missed if you arrive late, and recall notes from previous meetings. The free version only gives you 300 transcription minutes and 20 chat queries a month. The premium starts at $17 a month.

In our test of the paid version, Otter didn’t always know who said what, and it forgot names and misidentified people. You can review recorded transcripts to check on questionable points.

Zoom now has an AI Companion for paying users. It summarizes meetings and lengthy chat threads, brainstorms ideas, and organizes meeting highlights by topics. Only the host can enable these AI Companion summaries, so if you’re not running the meeting, you’ll have to ask the host to turn it on.

For Microsoft enterprise customers, Copilot is embedded in Teams and can take notes, summarize chats and answer questions. Gemini for Google Workspace accounts with the Gemini Enterprise or AI Meetings and Messaging add-on can also take notes and summarize them during and after meetings.

If your colleagues notice you missed the meeting and sent a bot instead, your best response may be: “Welcome to the future."

Write to Cordilia James at cordilia.james@wsj.com

Catch all the Business News, Market News, Breaking News Events and Latest News Updates on Live Mint. Download The Mint News App to get Daily Market Updates.
more

MINT SPECIALS