Digital Society Forum Digital Society Forum
Dossier 24/06/2014

Digital technology and transformations in the working world: the search for a new balance

Work is constantly reinventing itself under the guises of ground-breaking technological innovations. If we only look at the last century, the advent of the steam engine in the late 19th century sparked the industrial era and ushered in completely new ways of structuring and organising labour. Urban development, large corporations, the era of Ford and then Toyota, the standardisation of the salaried employee, the expansion of supervisory functions followed by service jobs, the introduction of legal standards – a totally new frame of reference emerged that solidified during the 30-year boom in the wake of World War II.

The cards are being reshuffled once again with the arrival of omnipresent digital technology. State-of-the-art processes, computing and expanding networks were initially inspired by an industrial model that has now become globalised. Next came a shift in scale that ultimately toppled that frame of reference with the rise of the Internet. Its open protocol brought with it a new phase of deep-seated change in the workplace, both in terms of organisation and individual representations.

The codes have changed (again)

By opening up information processing and distribution, the boom of digital technologies led to productivity gains at the process level, thereby affecting every productive sector. Now globalised and exposed to protean competition and a heightened demand for agility, and beyond the issue of offshoring, at that point large corporations followed a trend where they downsized their need for permanent jobs and looked for ways to adjust work organisation to fit the new context. New companies competed with these existing large corporations by devising innovative work organisation methods and taking full advantage of the new techno-economic climate.
Two final elements completed the picture. On the one hand, the societal and environmental impacts of economic activity (especially industrial activity), which had long been underestimated and "forgotten" amidst price development, become even more apparent because ways to produce and distribute information were democratised and at the core it gradually became necessary to partially or fully account for these costs. On the other hand, while the mass production of low-cost uniform products and services is still crucial for development in many countries, it needs to redesign itself to be more tenable yet offer fewer job opportunities in developed countries that are dealing with rising inequality and insecurity.

Destruction, creation, transformation

While relationship technologies lie at the heart of the salaried worker crisis and are severely unsettling the organisation of work handed down from the industrial era, they are simultaneously paving the way to transforming occupations and creating new ways of "working together." In fact, these technologies are helping bring about structures that connect local footholds with global markets and targeting niche markets as they rely on working communities in all corners of the world. Network-based and designed on a human scale, these technologies give us more collaborative ways of operating. At the individual level, they are changing how we relate to work and providing a wider range of experiences that ultimately tend to override conventional career paths.
Their growth is a major interest on many fronts. As they breathe new life into employment, they are providing new solutions for the demand on innovation and renewal of large groups as they open up new markets. Given the risks that a low-cost society will implode and offer dwindling opportunities, there is keen interest in making these technologies part of the ecosystem at major corporations. Having become a stakeholder in these companies, they are clearly impacting pre-existing organisational methods.

Insomuch as there are countless factors involved in the link between digital technology and the transformation of the working world, we chose to elaborate on only a few of them in the interest of understanding how digital technology is restructuring work organisation and overwhelming individuals in the workplace.

Work organisation or the story of constant renewal

Large companies now have three overlapping forms of managerial coordination based on hierarchy, projects and networks. This hybridised model is altering definition and results assessment charts (Mallard, 2011).

In the hierarchical coordination framework, the manager divvies up the work among the members of her team based on requirements received from her own managers. The project-based coordination model removes the manager from task definition, which is now determined within the project, and this means it is his job to allocate resources based on the assignments his managers have issued. That said, the monitoring and appraisal of the work provided becomes more complex because the supervisor evaluates what the supervised has contributed without having defined those tasks and while relying on opinions from fellow workers. Network-based coordination is creating a genuine disruption in that the type of expected credentials change, order is replaced by the power of conviction and relationship management becomes the dominant force. Businesspeople who were previously used to working in isolation are increasingly opening up to the world outside the company. Since networks are informal by nature and everyone is a free agent, blind trust must take precedence.
In addition to the growing complexity of internal management approaches, a key strategic interest has become an ability in large corporations to accept radically different operational methods. All the more so because it drastically alters methods of organising and relating.

Being here and always farther away

The increased flexibility of jobs and work that relationship technologies create apply equally to time and where work is done. While it has long been in the spotlight, the expansion of telecommuting from home is still a marginal activity, mainly because of a managerial culture where oversight and presence go hand-in-hand. In spite of changes to the legal framework, it remains reserved for employees who perform tasks that are easy to measure and monitor remotely.
In addition, the development of third places that are designed for short work sessions, are taking on a whole range of increasingly tangible realities from Starbucks to leased equipped spaces like call centres, business centres, business lounges and co-working spaces. More and more people have been using these spaces since they opened in 2005 in the California world of open source software and Web 2.0. Their numbers keep growing (over 130 in 2013 in France alone), keeping stride with the development of new types of businesses. However, behind the familiar mantra based on the values of discussion and openness, co-working covers a range of conflicting realities. Some spaces emphasise the community aspect while others prioritise the quest for financial gain. Much like those that, for example, offer individual closed offices or a registered address, which are moving away from a more "purist" perspective.

The fact remains that the novel types of sociability and collaboration practices we are seeing in these spaces, the economic models they are based on and approaches offering specialised guidance depending on the product's or service's development phase begs the question: Is it possible to create innovative hybrid spaces inside a traditional company? All the more so since these are new opportunities to gain insight into the professional practices that can ultimately become sources for social innovation to conquer isolation, link the generations, and provide career training and co-innovation.

Collaborative tools on the rise

Along with changes to work organisation comes a multitude of internal tools designed to increase productivity and traceability. From developing business software to deploying email and instant messaging, these tools require employees to adapt. In fact, a lack of proficiency has negative and counterproductive outcomes: email is the most striking example in terms of fragmented tasks, compulsive behaviour, information overload, stress, etc.

At the same time, the demand for cross-disciplinary collaboration means specialised tools are being used more and more, like in the recent example of company digital social networks. This generic term conceals realities that vary from one company to the next, from creating contact networks to displaying enhanced profiles and real support for collaborative work. The target population also varies in the sense that these networks can be made accessible to all employees or only be meant for a few specific functions; mandates to sign up and use them can also vary in intensity.

Even though there was strong fear when they were introduced that people would overuse them outside of work, we have noticed these tools are primarily being used for professional purposes:
- searching for, exchanging or distributing information, from simple "observation" to structured "mutual support" practices;
- building a network of contacts by adding people you did not previously know or staying in touch with former co-workers.
In most cases, they are being used to focus on collaborative aspects with a view to expanding current practices. As such, it is important to note that the most active online communities are those that had previously existed in "real life" and the tool supports processes and projects already in place. To a large extent, people's interest in learning a tool is determined by the utility management ascribes to it.

Another key concept is that a company social network depends on the activity the person is doing; for example, it may be used within a given timeframe to work on a specific project, but is subsequently abandoned. This partly explains why assimilating these tools in the workplace is such a long and complex endeavour. This assimilation is influenced by a number of factors, i.e. a person's motives, socio-professional environment, whether they use tools in both the private and professional worlds, how other people use it or even the tool's navigation and functionalities.
Lastly, we should point out that a core userbase generates the activity on company social networks; few members leave behind many "tracks." This is a typical outcome since people tend to read social networks much more than they contribute to them. In a general sense, the usage analysis shows us that when a new tool is introduced in a company, more often than not it complements existing tools, but does not replace them. Some authors refer to this as a "millefeuille effect" in the sense that methods of communication pile on top of one another without really melding into one system (Kalika, Boukef Charki, Isaac, 2007).

The person-work face-off

The new technological and economic climate has changed how people perceive work itself , although our identities still depend on a sense of fulfilment at work.
Compared to our predecessors, the younger generations are seeking to negotiate a shorter term quid pro quo with companies. They want quick returns for the investments they contribute to the organisation (Delay, 2008). The relationship with the collective leans more toward "cooperative individualism" where young people want a wide berth of independence at work, but also to seek out complementary skills and more direct types of interactions (including with management). These changes have become a sign of more far-reaching shifts in the working world.

In terms of how digital technology is used, it should be specified that young people are not a homogeneous group and although these "digital natives" are the ones introducing companies to new practices, the common refrain about their digital skills is only a partial reflection of reality. Therein lies one of the misconceptions where the skills of students graduating from the grandes écoles (French engineering and business schools) are generalised for the entire population of the same age. The best way to gain more insight into the digital practices of young people entering the labour market is to make a distinction between the effects of age (i.e. sociability that decreases with age) and generational effects (i.e. in terms of new digital cultural practices among young people).
Inside a company, the digital practices that young people can bring in from the private sphere can be shared locally, but they do not have the power to introduce these practices into company processes. To tap into this potential, intergenerational cooperation is what gets older generations interested in strategically applying these practices at the company process level.

The quest for a work-home life balance

Out of all the European countries, France has the keenest interest in labour but it is also a country where people would like it to be less of a focus. This paradox is primarily due to the contradiction between striving for a job that is more meaningful, more independent and fits better into their lives and the reality of working and employment conditions.

It is not new for our private and professional lives to be intertwined. With the changes happening in the working world and the boom of digital technology, there is greater tension at the point where private and professional meet. But not all employees have the same power to draw the lines between these two realms. Some of the many factors affecting this line are socio-professional class, independence at work, age and whether you have young children (which greatly restricts schedules and the ability to travel), gender (women are still the "time buffers" because they are the first ones to respond to family emergencies), work schedule (unconventional, variable) and the equipment available in the private and professional spheres. From the equipment perspective, we are witnessing digital innovation reverse course and turning back to the consumer realm: under 20% of employees have a mobile subscription paid for by their company, but over 80% use a mobile they pay for. 50% of salaried employees use email for work, but 75% of them use email for personal reasons.
The balance between private professional lives also depends on the employee and the employer working together, and there are a number of decision-makers behind the scenes (HR, IS, direct managers) who are themselves affected by a range of constraints and expectations when it comes to delineating these two worlds.

Working towards more job independence

To conclude, we should note that since the 1980s and 1990s changes in how work is organised and the boom of digital technology have been creating expectations of responsibility, autonomy and ambition at work as the level of education and training rises. These incentives have helped give rise to a social and emotional side of the workplace that translates into a quest to find ourselves, meaning and recognition in our work. But companies clamped down on the independence that they sparked (mainly by adding more kinds of reporting) by curbing it and, consequently, by inducing risks both for the employee (detachment, making work meaningless) and for management (the risk of distancing themselves from reality by simply feeding management machine through tighter control).
Therefore, it is becoming important to figure out how to build environments conducive to restoring employees' ability to develop their independence in workplace situations (skills acquisition, empowerment to take action) and this is done by orchestrating the organisational, technical and social climate.
So, companies are still searching for the right balance between the human factor and digital technology, a balance that is in perpetual rebuild mode.


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Adrian Altenburger
Adrian Altenburger 21/10/2019 10:28:15

J'aime les pensées éclairées de l'article de Scott Lee sur «Hey, Google» et des innovations de Google en général. Un monde du travail numérique: transformations des métiers et implications pour les besoins en compétences:

Dufier Kein
Dufier Kein 18/08/2016 18:21:47

Très bon article !!! Vraiment intéressant. J'ai trouvé un article sur les nouvelles méthodes de management qui présente les outils innovants dont vous parlez.

Je pense qu'il image parfaitement l'organisation en autonomie dont vous parlez: méthodes agiles, scrum etc ... Encore merci pour cet article !

Jean-Paul Moiraud
Jean-Paul Moiraud 02/04/2016 09:38:12

J'ai réalisé une présentation sur la place du domicile dans les modes de travail et d'apprentissage -

Jean-Paul Moiraud
Jean-Paul Moiraud 31/03/2016 19:51:14


Vous allez me prendre pour un individu byzantin mais ... Je préfère que l'on dise "une présence toujours plus á distance" que "une présence toujours plus distante". Même si l'expression est juste le terme est polysémique, il peut signifier froid, qui prend de la distance sociale.

Je sais que c'est du détail mais c'est souvent l'argument de ceux qui pourfendent le numérique.

Bien cordialement

Adrien Snavely
Adrien Snavely 28/07/2015 12:38:57

Bonjour Romaine,
Voici en image un petit bilan sur les espaces de coworking en France en 2014 que je trouve très intéressant ;)

Romaine Decault
Romaine Decault 01/08/2014 10:39:42

Très bon article ! Effectivement, les nouvelles technologies ont crée de nouveaux statuts de travailleurs comme les "digital nomads". Et comme ils sont de plus en plus nombreux. Moi-même, j'en suis une.
Peut-être pourriez-vous faire un article sur les ces nouveaux espaces de bureaux, comme le Coworking ou les locations de bureaux ?
Ca serait intéressant de voir les différentes structures qui s'offrent à nous.

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