Digital Technology at work is a double-edged sword

How is digital technology affecting our work situation? Is digital technology helping or hindering our work performance? Could data collected about work tasks pave the way for a return to an older style of managerial practice? These are some of the questions discussed by researchers involved in the research theme Digiworks at the Pufendorf Institute.

For seven months the researchers, from disciplines such as economics, cultural geography, sociology, data systems, and media and communication, have discussed how technology is affecting work. 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.

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

Every example an important part of the puzzle

So far the research group has collated 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 infrequent use, lack of feedback within the system and requirements to change passwords.

In another example, the group looked at the use of mobile phones in schools. While they could identify many benefits of use in general (such as mobiles being a tool for presenting in class and documenting), they also identified negative effects for the teachers such as students using their phones to film the teachers and upload the clips to Youtube. Many of the teachers who had been filmed felt that it had been a very negative experience.

The group also explored how staff at a bank use a Facebook interface for internal communication. Here too, the group could identify both benefits and negative aspects. For example, the staff did not need any training in how to use the platform, everyone recognised the interface and could join in information sharing. On the other hand, the use of the Facebook interface is also a conflation between private and public spheres since staff have to have both a private account and company account. Staff reported that they had received comments from superiors about not “liking” a superior’s post or photograph, and that they felt forced to use Facebook in order to get access to internal information.

In a fourth example, the group looked at nurses – who have highlighted that it is becoming more common for nurses and parents of sick children to be friends on Facebook. Often parents will post updates about being nervous ahead of going to a doctor’s appointment. The nurse is then put in a strange position – should he/she show support and comment on the parents’ post as a friend, or refrain from doing so from a professional view point?

“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

While the research theme is still ongoing, Stephan Schaefer says that the group has started to formulate a number of thoughts on how digital technology impacts our working situation.

One centers on the idea of gamification and competition. Since many of the workers highlighted how managers have started to collect data as a way to measure work performance, this could give rise to a culture of gamification and competition, such as driving competitions between lorry drivers. Other more subtle examples, according to him, relate to how a degree of competition can be detected in the way bank staff post photos and status updates on the internal Facebookpage.

“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 workers feel forced to take part: instead of participation being voluntary, it becomes almost mandatory”, says Stephan Schaefer.

Another concern is how data collected about workers’ performance, say how long certain tasks take to complete, or how the tasks are completed, 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 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 workers’ 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

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