Work 4.0 – opportunities and risks

Digitization poses risks and challenges to the working world. [EPA-EFE/MARTIN DIVISEK]

Digitisation is on everyone’s lips and it will change the working world in the next couple of years. For employers, this poses a range of risks – but could also create some opportunities, as a recent analysis shows. EURACTIV Germany reports.

Up to 60% of today’s jobs can potentially be replaced by computers or robots through digitisation, studies say. At the same time, numerous new jobs are being created in the digital industry. A development that, according to many experts, brings more serious upheavals than the industrial revolution of the 19th century.

The Institute for Economic and Social Sciences (WSI) of the Hans-Böckler-Foundation has now carried out and evaluated a comprehensive survey of councils representing workers in companies and drawn a surprisingly positive picture of the forthcoming changes. For example, 38% of the employee representatives see “great potential for further improvement and humanisation of the working world.”

Most of them also see more opportunities to work independently. Home office and mobile work are seen as a positive option to better balance work and family life. So far, only 12% of the employees work regularly from home, although that would be possible for around 40% of them. This potential could be better exploited in the future.

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At the same time, the councils see a range of risks. Working more flexibly can also mean more work. Permanent accessibility can lead to stress and affect health. 78% of the respondents state that digitisation is increasing their workload, while increased performance and behavioural control are feared.

Work 4.0, therefore, involves opportunities as well as risks for the employees. The direction in which the pendulum swings depends, according to the WSI analysis, on whether or not companies are properly prepared for digitisation.

Three out of four works councils see the need for more staff in their businesses. 70% demand measures to limit the work intensity and to secure employment. 69% see the need to offer their employees more qualification measures. If nothing moves here, humanisation of the working world will not happen.

However, relying solely on the initiative of companies could turn out to be naive. Business associations such as the employers’ confederation [BDA] have a different plan:

“Digitisation will also mean short-term fluctuations in the order situation. Employment will, therefore, have to follow the requirements of fluctuating order levels more than before. One means to facilitate this is flexible working hours. Another means is the support of temporary work and temporary employment,” a position paper stated.

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So, while unions are urging companies to better address workers’ needs, companies are pushing employees to adapt to their needs. Therefore, the unions do not want to leave it in appeals to the entrepreneur side, as the author of the WSI study, Elke Ahlers, explained in an interview with EURACTIV Germany.

On the contrary, the state has a responsibility here too. It does not necessarily need new laws, but above all the consistent implementation of the existing ones, such as the working hours and the occupational safety law. In the supervisory authorities, for 30 years more and more staff was being dismantled. Here there needs to be some rethinking.

However, looking at the German coalition agreement between the Christian Democrats and the Socialists, Ahlers fears that the state will not adequately take on this task under the next grand coalition. She misses binding rules that would give workers more say in designing workplaces and working hours.

If workers cannot have their say, there is a risk that they will end up taking on the entire adaptation burden of digitisation. However, if the work is to be made more humane and better, works councils and unions must prepare for tough arguments.

Employers will not voluntarily miss the opportunity to use their staff more flexibly in the future. The competition from robots and computers is not exactly playing into the hands of unions. Therefore, digitisation in the private sector cannot be negotiated in social dialogue alone. It needs political design.

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