The digital transformation of work. COVID-19 as a taste of things to come?
After more than three months of working from home and school closures, many Germans are currently experiencing a return to what we considered “normal” before the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. However, in light of the digital transformation, the “normal” of the future may no longer be the “normal” of the past. The Covid-19 pandemic may have given us a peep into the future of digitized and automated workplaces. Much of what both the enthusiasts and the critics of technology are predicting about a digital working world is already being experienced by many people in this exceptional historical situation.
First, there is the possibility of working at any location or time. A privilege that was previously reserved mostly for a small, highly educated group of employees has suddenly been granted to a much wider group. Yet, after a couple of weeks without commuting, with more time for the family or uninterrupted time to concentrate on long-deferred projects, many people now long for the routines of everyday work: the clear structures of employment, the face-to-face encounters with colleagues, the clear boundaries between paid work and private life.
Second, the COVID-19 pandemic has also given us a foretaste of what it could be like when robots and algorithms take over a large part of the work still done by humans today. For instance, some groups of employees are currently worried about their jobs—or have already lost them. On the other hand, certain professions and companies are more secure than ever. The polarization and inequality that we have been observing for years may be exacerbated by the losses of orders, rising unemployment, and company closures. In this respect, the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic and those of the digital transformation overlap, albeit at a presumably lower level and only for a limited time.
Third, the German welfare state seems to be coping well with the current crisis so far—at least for a considerable proportion of the workforce. Federal and state governments have provided short-time work benefits and emergency aid, tax breaks, and interest-free loans to organizations to compensate for current losses. The state is reducing the economic and social damage caused by the virus and, in return, is being applauded and confronted with demands for more support and more intervention. Such an active and intervening state could also shape the digital transformation and hence reduce the worries and social disruptions that are about to come.
The current crisis may, therefore, be an opportunity to effectively address the coming challenges and conflicts that will arise. Historically, crises have often led to a surge in automation. The Covid-19 pandemic may also trigger such a surge. Perhaps we are already much closer to the digital transformation than we think. In fact, we are already in the middle of it. The fear of rising infection rates and the extensive closures in all areas of life have forced us to confront the fact that human workers are vulnerable to various hazards of work, including disease, while machines are obviously immune. Even in areas where social contact has so far seemed necessary—think of care work or the hospitality industry—digitization and automation may now be progressing faster than expected.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lena Hipp is Professor of Sociology at the University of Potsdam and Head of the Research Group “Work and Care” at the Berlin Social Science Center (WZB). She is a member of the “Working Futures” Network at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin.
More articles of the series "Wiko Briefs - Working Futures in Corona Times" can be found here.