The Digital Transformation of Work: COVID-19 as a Taste of Things to Come?
By Lena Hipp
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 peek 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.
This text is part of the #DossierCorona thread #workingfutures and was first published as part of the series “Wiko Briefs – Working Futures in Corona Times” of the Working Futures Network at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin. The authors are members of the transnational network “Working Futures” or Fellows of the Wissenschaftskolleg.
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.
Further articles in the thread #workingfutures of the #DossierCorona on TRAFO:
Introducing #DossierCorona #workingfutures, 14 May 2020.
Lisa Herzog, How Can We Strengthen the Contributory Logic of Work?, 14 May 2020.
Martin Krzywdzinski, The COVID 19 crisis accelerates structural change in the world of work, 15 May 2020.
Elena Esposito, The Need for De-Integration in Pandemic Times, 18 May 2020.
Dirk Helbing, The Corona Crisis Reveals the Struggle for a Sustainable Digital Future, 21 May 2020.
Laure de Verdalle, “Useful”, “Indispensable”, “Essential”: Is the Health Crisis Changing the Categories With Which We Consider Professional Activities?, 25 May 2020.
Jürgen Kocka, How Does the Corona Crisis Affect the Future of Work and Our View of It?, 28 May 2020.
Bénédicte Zimmermann, Caring About What We Hold Dear and the Final Purposes of Work, 1 June 2020.
Michel Lallement, The Crisis as Beginning of a New Relationship to the Professional World?, 8 June 2020.
David Stark, Who or What Is Being Tested in Pandemic Times?, 11 June 2020.
Bruce Kogut, Covid and Looking for the Exit, 15 June 2020.
Sasha Disko, The End of the Pandemic of Productivism?, 18 June 2020.
Felix Sieker and Anke Hassel, The Future of Shopping: Corona as a Catalyst for the Transformation of Work, 22 June 2020.
Constance Perrin-Joly, Rearticulating Globalization, Solidarities and Work in Ethiopia, 26 June 2020.
Marianne Braig, Léa Renard, Nicola Schalkowski, and Theresa Wobbe, Thinking the Global Rise of Forced Labor: Old, New, and Changing Forms of Labor Exploitation in Times of Crisis, 29 June 2020.
Citation: Lena Hipp, The Digital Transformation of Work: COVID-19 as a Taste of Things to Come?, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 31.07.2020, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/24641.