The (digital) future of work in the post-Covid-19 era

The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated digitalization and the adoption of new technologies that are having a profound effect on the way we work. It has highlighted the urgent need to protect workers’ rights and to adopt measures that ensure inclusive growth and close the digital divide.

An online survey from Eurofound estimated that close to 40% of workers in the EU were working remotely during lockdown. By rapidly shifting most of the workforce online many companies were able to remain in business and keep their staff safe. However, workers suddenly found themselves having to adapt their homes to become work spaces, as well as manage caring responsibilities and domestic work in a state of emergency.

ESMH expert Karen GregoryDr Karen Gregory, digital sociologist at The University of Edinburgh:None of our social systems are set up for the integration of domestic work and work with a capital W, and they can’t provide the support that workers need right now. Without being able to send children to school or have support coming into the house, people are caught in an unprecedented and untenable situation.Read Karen Gregory’s full interview

Working remotely affects workers both physically, due to poor homeworking practices, and mentally, as separating their home lives from their work lives becomes challenging. “Working from home is really working continuously, there is very little distinction between the day and working hours,” Gregory adds.

Remote working and the rise of monitoring technologies: productivity vs privacy

Within weeks of the EU going into lockdown, Aida Ponce Del Castillo noticed how technology companies were releasing new software and tools so that their clients could continue to do business. She has been surprised at the speed of new technology adoption, bypassing risk and safety assessments that would normally have happened when a new technology is tested prior to entering the market.

ESMH expert Aida Ponce del CastilloAida Ponce Del Castillo, lawyer and senior researcher at the Foresight Unit of European Trade Union Institute (ETUI) in Brussels: “We have seen an increase in technological surveillance of productivity and behaviour. This is the riskiest aspect of working from home as it can happen without the knowledge of the worker. Once a technology is adopted, even if tacitly adopted, it is difficult to remove.Read Aida Ponce Del Castillo’s full interview

She stresses the importance of not letting Covid-19 undermine workers’ ability to question how technology affects them. Ponce urges workers to understand what data is involved and how it is used, so they can be more reactive and re-establish themselves as actors of the technology, rather than blind users of it.

In agreement with the policy options presented in Dr Phoebe Moore‘s report for the European Parliament’s Panel for the Future of Science and Technology (STOA) Panel: “Surveillance & Monitoring: The future of work in the digital era“, Ponce Del Castillo believes that trade union representatives should be involved in all stages of data protection and processing. “One of the positive things that might emerge from this pandemic is that workers may become more ‘technology and algorithm-aware’ (…) and become part of decision-making processes,” she says.

Covid-19, digitalisation and the digital divide

A recent report by McKinsey Global Institute, The future of work in Europe, estimated that up to 59 million European jobs, or 26 percent of the total, are at risk in the short term through reductions in hours or pay, temporary furloughs, or permanent layoffs. Roles which are most at risk from pandemic job losses overlap to some extent with those most vulnerable to displacement through digitalisation and automation, such as customer services and retail.

“The knock-on effects of what has been described as a “tsunami of lay-offs’ are yet to be seen” says Gregory. She thinks there will be a return to the discussion about sharing work. “We need to start looking at how to share the resources of work when there may be fewer jobs to go around“.

Young people are being hit especially hard by the pandemic. As jobs dry up, many have had to move back in with their parents.

Dr Karen Gregory: “I think there is a role for governments to provide different types of training programmes, support re-skilling and remove some of the debt that students graduate with.”

With rising unemployment and new technologies polarising of the labour market, social and economic divisions are widening. “The digital divide is undeniable, as those that have access to and can use digital technologies will be able to create better life chances,” she says.

To address the increasing inequalities and the rise in precarious and unprotected work, governments should consider the case for universal basic services provision. “That’s really a commitment to universal free healthcare, a robust investment in schools, childcare services and housing, to ensure that people’s fundamental basic rights are covered,” Gregory adds.

In July, EU heads of state and government agreed on a €750 billion recovery package, Next Generation EU, to tackle the socio-economic fallout from Covid-19. This budget offers a unique opportunity tackle some of the is challenges brought about by the digitalisation of work and build a more sustainable, resilient and fairer Europe. As the Commission assesses the 4-year national plans for reform and investment drawn up by Member States to secure financial support from the Recovery and Resilience Facility at the heart of Next Generation EU, it will be key to ensure that those hardest hit by the pandemic: self-employed workers, low-skilled labour and younger generations benefit from investments in green and digital reforms.

Related content
• An expert’s opinion: An interview with Aida Ponce del Castillo on the impacts of remote working on employees
An expert’s opinion: An interview with Karen Gregory on the future of work post-covid

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