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Dossier 24/06/2014

Does digital technology make you independent or passive ?

While digital technology has the potential to make employees autonomous, there are uses that can turn them into disquieting instruments of control and surveillance.

Sociologist Xavier Baron was invited to Microsoft's TechDays 2014 event to speak about working methods during the digital transition and he explained that ICTs are used differently depending on the company and the motives of the people who manage them. In some cases, using the benefit of digital technology for paperless production can cause companies to trust their employees and grant them more autonomy because there is no paper trail to check. But elsewhere, ICTs can be used to tighten control and increase standardization and when these two things are combined, employees have much less room to manoeuvre, thereby impacting their working conditions in an unprecedented manner.
This was proven by Romain Chevallet and Frédéric Moatty, who were commissioned to write a public report published in 2012 and study how ICTs impact the pace, autonomy and control of work. According to their research, a loss of independence is related to changes in the ways of controlling employees. ICTs can be used today to meticulously evaluate not only results, but also the time employees spend on the task and how closely they follow the instructions on a continuous basis and even in real time. According to a 2005 study, the authors point out that 29.7% of employees say that they follow a pace of work mandated by a control or computerized monitoring.

Antithetical streamlining

The expansion of ICT and information systems in the services sector has prompted the streamlining of operations. In the 2000s, companies expanded their resources to include business software packages (pleasantly named PGI or ERP). These IT solutions incorporate application bricks that manage and track work processes from order-taking to customer relations. The goal is to enforce tried-and-true Anglo-American processes and best practices in companies within the same business sector. The authors point out that procedures are designed for ever-increasing standardization to improve performance, modelling and simplification.

Yet companies also tend to encourage their employees to be more independent and innovative. Managers are also eager to do this because they are increasingly taking into account customer needs and desires. How can you be independent when everything you do is controlled? As the authors explain, standardizing scenarios has a tendency to place constraints on natural human interaction. This dynamic is particularly noticeable in call centres and extends to customer relations in industries like banking and insurance as well as in the medical field where studies show that the time spent entering information to create computerized patient and customer files is usurping face-to-face time.

Working conditions impacted

Through this study, these two authors show that conflicting obligations create stressful situations for employees. Heightened by surveillance, they generate both physiological and psychological hazards. Expanding control is also perceived as a lack of trust and leads to staff subjectively detaching themselves. The authors blame the high rate of withdrawal from management systems.

Apart from the stress, the study reveals that employees act like an ICT regulating buffer. In their theoretical scenarios, leadership often neglects to think about breakdowns or technical conflicts when combining digital systems and it is the employees who soften the blow of these failures by adjusting their behaviour to the technical constraints. The authors say that this excessive normalization undermines the content and causes employees to stop using any of their skills.

Are companies afraid of what their employees can do ?

In another more forward-looking article, Romain Chevallet depicts a futuristic company of cyber-telecommuters equipped with an implant that can be used to control work in real time and send protocols. He mainly describes the prevailing mistrust between the company and its employees. The company is fearful they will acquire expertise that would make it dependent, so it closes in on itself by heightening cognitive control of the workers and simplifying its processes even more to recruit less qualified and more captive staff members.

Alongside this scenario, he imagines the fate of the same company if it opted for a cybercommunity of workers where through networks of independent participants the IS were used for collective innovation and the community's lifespan relied on the subjective engagement of the freelancers and their contribution to each design phase. So, cybercommunity or cybermonitored? The answer remains to be seen.


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