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Office of Technology Assessment at the German Bundestag Office of Technology Assessment at the German Bundestag

Information on the project

Opportunities and threats of mobile and digital communication in the workplace

Thematic area: Technology, society, innovation
Analytical approach: TA project
Topic initiative: Committee on Education, Research and Technology Assessment
Status: completed
Duration: 2014 till 2016

Subject and objective of the project

The rapid evolution of information and communication technologies (ICT) has already involved profound changes in the workplace. For approximately 25 years, the professional use of computers has increased continuously. Moreover, since the emergence of smartphones and tablet computers, the degree of networking and mobility with regard to working processes once again has risen significantly. For companies, this results in the incentive to digitally network their production processes (Industry 4.0) and to organisationally outsource work activities from the traditional business to the Internet (cloud computing, crowdworking). This development – which is taking place in various sectors and fields of activity at a different pace and in different forms – has a fundamental impact on employment in general and on how work is organised.

Increasing flexibility in the workplace is an essential side effect with regard to the digitisation of work: Thanks to the Internet, work is ever less linked to specific times or places. Studies confirm the ambiguity of this development: On the one hand, this creates a great deal of freedom for employees offering better opportunities to reconcile work and family life. On the other hand, it also contributes to increasingly blurring the boundaries between professional and private life which is even aggravated due to rising time pressure and pressure to perform and might result in stress and overload.

However, there are still major uncertainties with regard to tangible characteristics and effects of the digitisation of work. Postulated risks and opportunities are perceived in very different ways and are the subject of controversial debates. In this context, the TAB has been commissioned by the Committee on Education, Research and Technology Assessment (ABFTA) to examine essential implications regarding the digitisation in the workplace taking into consideration the current state of the debate as well as a fact-based overview focusing on central technical developments and challenges of labour law.

Key results

Possible impacts on the labour market resulting from the digitisation of production and business processes as well as from new platform-based forms of work are of particular social importance. Currently, however, employment effects of digitisation cannot be quantified accurately. Nevertheless, it is clear that the digital workplace transformation with regard to imminent risks for employment represents a challenge mainly for education policy. This is due to the fact that in the future professional opportunities will increasingly depend on digital literacy. As a consequence, tailored and preferably lifelong learning and training will become more and more important.

The digital transformation in the workplace can only be socially sustainable if working conditions are created that are primarily oriented towards human needs instead of technical specifications. In this respect, data privacy is a primordial issue, as it concerns fundamental personal rights of the employees which seem to be increasingly threatened by a comprehensive digitisation of work. On the one hand, manufacturers of corresponding IT products have to be addressed here. The manufacturers’ awareness of the development of flexibly adaptable solutions that take into account data privacy and security aspects already during the technical design phase should be increased (»privacy by design«). On the other hand, the aim is also to strengthen and further develop co-determination in the workplace. For it is clear that the IT-related reorganisation of entire business units must be supported by the employees and their representatives.

Co-determination in the workplace plays a decisive role in another respect as well. Due to significant side effects of digitisation, it is necessary that employees shape their work processes more and more autonomously. Many employees consider this to be an opportunity to make their working hours more flexible. In this respect, the aim is to adapt labour law to the digital era in such a way that the freedoms opening up will not be restricted and the use of these freedoms at unusual times will nevertheless be limited to exceptional cases. In view of the heterogeneity of working structures and personal life situations, flexible forms of regulation seem to be most appropriate, for example in the form of tailored working time arrangements at the company level as they are currently being tested in several companies.

Currently, the knowledge and data basis for evaluating the consequences of a digitised workplace is very rudimentary and should be improved within the framework of a broadly based research policy. In particular, there is an increasing need of qualitative research and – in view of the dynamic changes – research with a high temporal resolution, which can provide in-depth findings on the industries and work areas involved as well as on their respective changes and develop practice-oriented design possibilities for achieving a »good« digital change. Major topics include implications of new platform-based forms of work, the question for an adequate design of production systems and human-machine interfaces as well as the identification of new qualification requirements.

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