Digitalisation and the Future of Work

Professor Mark Stuart
Pro-Dean for Research and Innovation, Montague Burton Chair for HRM and Employment Relations and Founding Director of the Centre for Employment Relations, Innovation and Change (CERIC).

Digital technologies have the potential to profoundly reshape the world of work. New technologies are making our ability to perform work more fluid and flexible. The workplace it seems is no longer associated with the office or factory floor. In the future the workforce, armed with smart technologies will adopt coffee shops, trains, and planes as their mobile places of work. In this vision of the future, technology has a somewhat liberating effect, offering more autonomy for an increasingly knowledge rich and creative workforce.

Other visions suggest a rather darker future. The robots are coming and they are going to take our jobs. And no jobs are safe from automation and machines that have the ability to learn. From the finance sector, to retail, to education, to health, automation has the potential to displace human labour with machines. Why would a company pay for an auditor, for example, to spend weeks poring over financial records, when an automated system could review huge quantities of data in a matter of minutes and to potentially higher levels of accuracy? In a widely cited study, Oxford University academics Frey and Osborne even put a figure on this likely technological scenario. Looking at nearly 800 occupations across the American labour market they argue that nearly half of all jobs (47%) are at high risk of technological substitution in the decades to come.

The robots are coming and they are going to take our jobs

Needless to say such predictions have caused a ‘future of work’ panic amongst policy makers across the advanced economies. Yet this prognosis is controversial. First, we can turn to history, which teaches us that advances in technology often create as many jobs as they displace – suggesting that technological panic is often misplaced. Second, at a more detailed level, occupations are made up of tasks and while some tasks can easily be performed (and replaced) by machines other tasks cannot. Third, and related, the impact that technology has at work depends on its implementation and employers have choices in how they do this: technology can be used to make labour redundant or as a means to enrich jobs and improve work quality.

The impact of digitalisation on the future of work is not, of course, just about whether there will be jobs for human labour or not. Digitalisation is also changing the way in which we work: from where we work; to the content of work; to the routines of work; to the way in which we are managed at work. Technology is also changing the way in which employers are looking to organise their production systems and the ways in which employers and would be workers are looking to connect and contract over jobs: this is increasingly taking place across digital platforms.

In terms of the nature of work, the use of computers, smart technologies and electronic communications, be it email, chat groups or social media applications, has had an obvious effect on the way in which we work. This has created some concern of an ‘always on’ work culture, with ‘connected workers’ feeling under pressure to check and respond to emails outside of working hours. In more extreme cases, technology is used as a mechanism to exert more detailed surveillance of workers’ performance. A good example is Amazon which tracks the movement of its warehouse workers through elaborate technologies of security and data capture, and has even patented designs for a wristband that will be able to track the direct movements of its workers and will vibrate if they are not using their hands in the most efficient way.

More widely, computer platforms are forecast to play an increasingly prominent role in labour market. Many companies are now allocating work and redesigning jobs through the use of computer applications. The rise of the so called ‘platform economy’ has also created a new type of labour market based on what commentators refer to as ‘crowd work’ or ‘gig work’. One example is Amazon Mechanical Turk (AMT), which acts as a kind of online recruitment agency. Companies list jobs via AMT and workers then apply for these jobs. The companies offering work typically come from the advanced economies, with the workers coming from across the world. However, the jobs offered via AMT, called Human Intelligence Tasks (HITs), are often very short (often seconds) for very low rates of pay (often cents).

The most iconic example of the platform economy is Uber, the ride hire business. In less than ten years Uber has become a global brand, and a leading case of how technology can disrupt a traditional business sector. With a motor vehicle and a smart phone Uber drivers are able to get work directly through the Uber app, which connects them to customers wanting a ride and organises an appropriate payment. Uber claims to have created a new opportunity for high paid work for the entrepreneurial self-employed. However, as a new model of the future of work this is controversial. In the UK, Uber, and similar platform-based companies such as Deliveroo, have been subject to legal test cases about their labour practices. The point of contention is whether Uber drivers are actually self-employed, given the fact that Uber algorithmically manages work through its app in a way similar to a traditional employer-employee relationship. For example, Uber controls the allocation of work, rates of pay – that are often arbitrarily changed downwards – and a customer ratings system that heavily penalises poor performance. The legal decision was that Uber drivers were actually workers not self-employed: a decision that Uber is still appealing.

Such legal decisions highlight potential points of tension over digital futures of work. As recent research from the Centre for Employment Relations, Innovation and Change (CERIC) at the University of Leeds shows, the rise of platform forms of working and the ongoing impact of technology on the nature of work raises big questions about the conditions of work and the types of protections that workers have (or increasingly don’t have) or may need in the future. Such tensions are exemplified by the recent protests and strikes by Uber drivers in the UK over pay and conditions, organised amongst others by the new trade union the Independent Workers of Great Britain. While at governmental level there is increasing interest in how to regulate the digital future of work. At European Union level this includes discussions over new social protections for gig workers. While in France a new law, introduced in 2016, gives workers the ‘right to disconnect’, to avoid sending and answering emails out of working hours.

The important point to note is that how digital technologies will reshape the world of work in the years to come is not yet written. The choices made by employers in how they introduce and use new technology may bring them into conflict with workers, organised through new collective organisations, and governments looking to introduce new forms of regulation. The script is best written in joint collaboration between employers, the state and workers’ groups to establish a new social contract for the future of work.