Digitisation is a component of digitalisation, the integration of digital technologies into everyday life by the digitisation of everything that can be digitised. Digitisation refers to processes that transform elements of the physical word into bytes. A report from Eurofound published in 2018 on the impact of digital technologies on work describes this process as taking place through the application of sensors and rendering devices, driven by the increase in speed, storage and communication channels opened up by digital technology.
Three technologies are propelling the digitisation drivers: Internet of Things (IoT), 3D printers and virtual and augmented reality. IoT uses sensors to capture information from machinery, devices, products and even from people (for example, wearables). A sensor that measures temperature in an industrial or domestic oven and sends data to be analysed to a computer or an operator can be seen as an example of IoT. 3D printers – referred to as ‘addictive manufacturing for industrial production’ – are machines that can take a digital design and print a three-dimensional output. Virtual reality can be used to build virtual models of a product or to enhance face-to face communication. Augmented reality superimposes information about a person’s surroundings on a device’s screen (for example, a tablet or smart-glasses). Some manufacturers are working to develop ‘virtual twins’ – copies of production processes and factories – where, thanks to information captured by sensors on existing products, it will be possible to simulate the behaviour of a product in a virtual setting.
All these technologies have in common the fact that information about production process and about the world can be converted into a format – bytes – enabling information to be manipulated and extracted faster by using a computer.
The implications of the application of these technologies on the world of work can be broken down into the impact on tasks and occupations, on working conditions, and on employment conditions and industrial relations.
Labour-saving productivity can be achieved through digitised processes: better real time information on a process is likely to affect areas such as logistics, quality control and administration. The automation of these processes could also be an outcome, although digitisation and automation often happen at the same time or overlap, so this distinction fits more in theory than into practice. A recent study on information technology and globalisation predicts that the enhancement of face-to face services through virtual reality and holograms could eliminate geographical barriers by allowing a number of services to be performed online.
While technological changes bring advantages, there are also associated risks and these should be discussed among social partners. Privacy and worker’s control are likely to be two of the main issues in terms of working conditions: sensors can allow much granular information about machinery but also about the workers working with that machine; similarly, workers wearing sensors for safety purposes (for example, in a mine) could be monitored beyond what is strictly necessary. So, while sensors can improve working conditions in terms of safety and quality purposes, vigilance should be maintained on the use of these data. The data compiled on workers could also have commercial value, which some employers may try to exploit if this issue is not properly regulated. For 3D printers, the risks are related more to the health domain: as recent Eurofound research into 'game-changing technologies' has shown, the health effects arising from the use of new materials and their diffusion in the work environment are still unknown. A joint Eurofound–ILO report highlights the positive and negative effects of telework : while the possibility of working remotely can be viewed by many workers as a way to increase autonomy and efficiency, the blurring of boundaries between work and free time could negatively impact on work–life balance.
Another related issue is that when jobs (or tasks) can be performed online, location could lose its importance and transfer competition for a job to a global scale, hence breaking down the traditional social dialogue structure and making it difficult for a union to organise a geographically dispersed workforce. There are, however, several recent examples of platform workers organising online. Eurofound’s Platform economy repository provides information on reports, articles, court cases, initiatives and other outputs related to platform work, or those forms of work that are organised and mediated through online platforms (websites and apps).