Digital revolution changes work environment

How does digital technology affect our work situation? Could data collected to measure our performance lead to old-fashioned micromanagement? Should higher education take after healthcare with regard to the boundary between work and spare time?

These are some of the questions discussed by researchers involved in the research theme Digiworks at the Pufendorf Institute. Researcher in business administration Stephan Schaefer and ethnologist Kristofer Hansson are two of the researchers who have come together in this theme.

For seven months, researchers from disciplines such as business administration, cultural sciences, sociology, computer science, media and communication studies, have discussed how the technological revolution is now rapidly changing our work situation and work environment. The group focuses on exploring different dimensions of digital technology use, and has studied how various professions such as lorry drivers, school teachers, nurses, home care staff, and white collar workers use digital technology.

“Strangely enough there is not much in-depth empirical research on this subject involving different disciplines. Yet, this theme is absolutely crucial to explore since the use of digital technology as a means to perform tasks will become increasingly important in all disciplines and professions”, says Stephan Schaefer, from the Department of Business Administration at Lund University.

“We need more knowledge about the way digital technology impacts on work, and that knowledge needs to be both nuanced and exhaustive”.

Every example provides an important piece of the puzzle

So far the research group has compiled a number of practical examples of the ways in which digital technology impacts on work.

In one example, they looked at staff at Lund University. They assessed how long it took for the staff to use a technical system to generate travel expense reports. They found that it took staff 30 minutes to produce a standard travel report instead of the 10 minutes the task was supposed to take. This was because of factors such as unfamiliarity due to infrequent use, lack of feedback within the system and requirements to change passwords.

The group also explored how a company uses Facebook for its internal communication. Here, too, the group could identify both advantages and disadvantages. One advantage was that the staff did not need any training in how to use the platform as they recognised the interface and were able to participate in information sharing. On the other hand, the use of the Facebook interface is also a conflation between private and public spheres. The staff reported that they had received comments from superiors about not “liking” a superior’s post or photo, and that they felt forced to use Facebook in order to get access to internal information.

“These examples highlight how diverse the impacts of digital technology use are. Together they form a puzzle of the types of issues that are coming to the fore as digital technology becomes ubiquitous at work. And these issues have very different positive and negative economic, social and practical repercussions, as our examples show”, says Stephan Schaefer.

Gamification, managerial style and social coercion

Although the research theme is still ongoing, Stephan Schaefer says that the group has started to formulate a number of ideas on how digital technology affects our work situation.

One idea is about “gamification” and competition. Many employees highlighted how managers have started to collect data as a way to measure work performance, and this could give rise to a culture of gamification and competition, as when lorry drivers compete in who can drive in the most eco-friendly manner. Another more subtle example, according to Stephan Schaefer, relates to how a degree of competition can be detected in the way company staff post photos and status updates on the internal Facebook page.

“There seems to be a form of social coercion at play in these practices: all of a sudden you can measure things like status updates, whether people like posts by superiors, or fuel emissions amongst drivers. This can make some employees feel forced to take part: instead of participation being voluntary, it becomes almost mandatory”, says Stephan Schaefer.

Another concern is how data collected about employees’ performance – how long certain tasks take to complete, or how the tasks are completed – which could potentially pave the way for a return to an older, more controlled form of managerial practice, similar to the one espoused by early 20th century management theorist Frederick Taylor. His management style focused on using scientific methods to determine the most efficient way to do tasks, training workers to work at maximum efficiency, monitoring working performances and a strict division of labour.

“While it is very positive that companies can use metrics to optimise performance, and indeed check workers who lie about their work, we find it quite worrying that data collection can also be used as a way to control workers in a very detailed way. Individuals are not machines – some tasks might take longer some days than others, and we fear that employees’ creativity and enjoyment might be stifled by constant data collection”.

Therefore, in the future, according to Stephan Schaefer, organisations will have to stop and think about how they use digital technology at work. They also have to start to listen to their employees: what do they think of various technologies, are they hindering or helping them? Can their use become a means of control?

“We think that these types of questions will become more and more important. And, as a group, we want to help further the discussion by highlighting in what ways digital technology actually affects your working situation.”

Text: Noomi Egan