Technological development has been affecting more and more parts of our lives, and work is not an exception. It can lead to more efficient and stimulating work if used correctly, but too often it makes work monotonous, heavy, and controlled. In Sweden, commerce workers’ union Handels has published a report titled Human-machine work. It sheds light on the importance of involving employees in deciding how new technology – particularly that which is algorithm-based – is used in the workplace.
The report includes the results of a survey of warehouse workers. It indicates that the majority of them use digital systems where algorithms, robots, and assembly lines control and monitor the work. When it works well, employees get skills development to take on more qualified tasks and control the work together with the digital systems. But when it works poorly, employees are subjected to intrusive surveillance and are given little room for human action and thinking.
The problem is that the needs and skills of employees are not always taken into account when new technology is introduced. As a result, the working environment suffers instead of benefiting both the employees and the company. Only 17 percent of employees receive regular skills development in the workplace, while eight out of ten want to develop to perform new tasks.
“Just as we want to negotiate about other conditions that affect the working environment, we want to negotiate about algorithms and high-tech systems in the workplace,” writes Linda Palmetzhofer, Handels President in an opinion piece co-authored with the report researcher.
The Handels report proposes several measures to ensure that technological development in the workplace benefits employees. Firstly, the report suggests negotiating algorithms, giving employees influence over how algorithmically controlled systems are introduced and used. Secondly, employees’ knowledge and experience should be utilized when new systems are introduced. Lastly, employees should receive skills development in using new technology in the workplace.
“New technology can make work better and more stimulating. But then the employees must be involved when it is developed and in how it is used,” said Linda Palmetzhofer.
In conclusion, the Handels report “Human-machine work” provides insight into how employees can benefit from technological development in the workplace. Negotiating algorithms, utilising employees’ knowledge and experience, and providing skills development are crucial steps towards a better working environment.