In the digital age, people should always come first

Ljubljana, 15 December - Introducing digital technologies in companies is changing the work environment, benefiting both employers and employees but also creating challenges. Employment relationships are becoming increasingly precarious, workers vulnerable, and pressure on staff to be flexible is mounting. Being constantly connected though new communication channels may lead to stress and burnout, which reduces productivity and economic value. The solution is finding the right balance, says researcher Matej Černe, who thinks people should always come first.

Matej Černe, a researcher and associate professor of management and organisation at the Ljubljana Faculty of Economics.
Photo: Anže Malovrh/STA

Matej Černe, a researcher and associate professor of management and organisation at the Ljubljana Faculty of Economics.
Photo: Anže Malovrh/STA

Matej Černe, a researcher and associate professor of management and organisation at the Ljubljana Faculty of Economics.
Photo: Anže Malovrh/STA

The debate on the consequences of digitalisation and the use of modern technologies, and the new types of work they are creating, has been ongoing for decades, but as technology progresses at an ever faster pace, these issues are gaining renewed attention. Digitalisation and its impact on labour has been the subject of research for Matej Černe, a lecturer and researcher at the School of Economics in Ljubljana.

The positive effects of digitalisation have been thoroughly examined, but what he wants to do is to look into its negative aspects. Based on his previous research in creativity, management and job design, he is trying to determine how jobs will be designed in the age of digitalisation to preserve economic value while centring on people.

"The future is in designing the type of jobs and organisations that will incorporate a system of values and ethics which will by default restrict working hours. The underlying assumption should be that employees must not be exploited but that their assets and virtues should be capitalised on, while still allowing them to rest and have a life outside of work," Černe says.

One of the drawbacks of digitalisation is constant connectivity

In the digital world of today, labour is defined by unstable employment, lack of social rights, and employees having problems connecting with their co-workers and becoming friends with them. This creates feelings of isolation and seclusion. Another potentially negative effect is constant connectivity.

In traditional employment relations, digitalisation is opening new possibilities for telecommuting, but also the prospect of employees taking their work home, which interferes with work-life balance. For those who love their job and see it as meaningful, it means they may end up working practically all the time, thinking about work all the time, and be available at all times, which Černe thinks is an absurd paradox.

"A person enjoys their work but is investing so much time and energy into it that it makes them feel stressed, which leads to burnout. This has negative consequences for the person as well as their employer, reducing employee productivity and consequently the company's economic profit," Černe says.

Finally, the negative effects are affecting government finances because stress and burnout are raising the amount of sick leave, leading to ballooning health services costs and social transfers are while undermining productivity. According to a 2013 European survey, this costs Europe alone some EUR 600 billion a year.

This is why digitised jobs raise an important question: how to design jobs that would make employees content, motivated and productive while not interfering with their personal life and leisure time.

Fair Labour in the Digitized Economy

Černe has attempted to highlight the challenges of workers in digital employment relationships as part of a three-year project called Fair Labour in the Digitized Economy, which is now drawing to a close.

Together with his colleagues from the BI Norwegian Business School, Harvard University, Erasmus University Rotterdam and the University of St. Gallen he has focused his research on precarious workers working though digital platforms such as Amazon's Mechanical Turk. This is a platform run by the world's largest online retailer that connects freelancers with customers, enabling them to carry out short, simple tasks in exchange for - usually very low - pay.

According to some estimates, in the US about 40% of employees engage in this type of work, while in Europe only about one to two million people or a few percent of the active population do. However, this percentage has been rising, especially in industries where pay is low, Černe warns. Such work is frequently outsourced to Asia or other parts of the world where pay is lower as it is, which exacerbates the exploitation and vulnerability of workers.

As part of the project, researchers have looked for ways to manage and design jobs that would be more employee-friendly. They have learned that even though workers feel they are being exploited and do not feel connected to the organisation, there are measures such as greater autonomy of staff and providing feedback, that can mitigate the negative effects of this type of precarious work.

Finding a balance is key

Černe believes striking a balance is crucial for overcoming the negative effects of digitalisation. This means, for example, that the time frame in which an employee is expected to respond to e-mails should be restricted, which many companies in the world already do.

In Scandinavian countries, the boundary between work and leisure is much clearer than here. This means we are still not as good at regulating the negative effects of digitalisation as the Scandinavians, who were among the first ones to introduce shorter working hours, Černe says.

Other measures to overcome the negative effects of digitalisation are softer and have to do with relations and the system of values, Černe explains. One such softer measure is granting a level of independence and autonomy to workers. Another is connected to the way a job is designed.

In the past, work was delegated from top to bottom, meaning the manager said what and how an employee will do; in the modern work environment the employee provides a lot more initiative, monitors their work independently, and assigns value to different tasks.

Human and their health is the foundation

Černe believes the responsibility for finding the balance in the face of negative effects of digitalisation lies both with the employer and employee, and must be reached in harmony. "It is up to management to create work conditions enabling employees to work moderately, and adjust the work to their own needs and desires; employees, on the other hand, must consider what goals they wish to achieve without being overly consumed by work."

A balance must be found between constant connectivity, innovation and increasing economic value, but the foundation of everything must be humans and their mental and physical well-being, satisfaction and motivation. "That's the element that is boosting innovation and it is the capital which, powered by the positive effects of digitalisation, creates economic value."