Education

Well-being and inequality in the digitalisation of work

How does technology change the way we work and organise? What’s the connection between digitalisation and inequality? To what extent is digitalisation related to shifting power relations? Claartje ter Hoeven and Francisca Grommé investigate these questions. Both are researchers and lecturers in the pillar of Organisational Dynamics in the Digital Society (ODDS). 

Claartje ter Hoeven is a professor whose background is in communication science. Francisca Grommé is an assistant professor with a background in science and technologies studies and political science. The moral of their story: technology brings us many fine things, but it also has downsides. 

Seeing differently

Claartje: “I believe it’s important to investigate how digitalisation affects work and well-being. We consider different people in different professions and discuss the influences with students.” Francisca adds: “New technologies make you look differently at the world around you. Take facial recognition for example. When the police uses such a technology, it changes the relationship between government and citizens. Sometimes visibly and at other times invisibly. I study that in different places.”

Starting a master’s during corona-time

The ODDS master’s was launched for the first time at the start of September, in the middle of the corona crisis. It was as hectic as it sounds. “But the students were enthusiastic from the start,” says Claartje. It’s those students that she loves to do it for. “It’s such a fun and motivated group. They have very varied academic backgrounds and that makes the working groups particularly instructive. I’m really proud that they have embarked on this adventure under these circumstances. Some of them even came from the other side of the world for this master’s!”

A unique concept

People work together in this programme who would otherwise seldom do. “What’s unique about this master’s is that it’s taught by public administration scholars, sociologists and psychologists alike. Francisca is going to teach a subject that I could never teach. It’s great that you can offer that to the students,” says Claartje. The questions central to this master’s also offer new perspectives. Francisca: “There’s lots of research and teaching on big data and artificial intelligence and the like, but it’s rarely about questions like: what impact do these technologies have on employees’ well-being? If you want to promote fairness with new technologies, how do you organise that? There’s less knowledge about this, and that’s precisely where we want to contribute something.”

Connection with the city in research and education

The ODDS theme is linked closely to the City of Rotterdam. The City of Rotterdam and ODDS developed the Knowledge Lab Organisations in a Smart City. Research is being conducted on how employees of the City of Rotterdam experience working from home in the time of corona. The research resulted in a much appreciated report with recommendations for the municipality. Claartje: “There were also some questions that required follow-up research. Our master’s students are going to work with five sub-questions. It’s a special opportunity for them to carry out research in this way, commissioned by the Municipality of Rotterdam.” In collaboration with the Municipality of Rotterdam, a large-scale and long-term panel research project will also be conducted. Claartje: “With the research we want to visualise how different forms of work are developing, such as payrolling, freelance and platform work. What’s the role of technology in this? What consequences does it have in terms of wellbeing, social welfare and insecurities on the labour market?”

Influence your environment

Within the ODDS master’s, students are prepared for the professional practice of the future. Francisca: “We don’t just give our students future work skills, such as creativity and innovation. We also prepare them to reflect on the organisation they will be working for, and to identify and encourage possible changes and improvements.” Claartje laughs. “Sometimes I hear too readily: ‘We have no influence over that; it’s how the system works.’ I like to make students think, and I respond that child labour also used to be allowed. So the workplace did indeed change because we didn’t find that some things were morally right.” Francisca agrees: “We have to keep an eye on such things as wellbeing and social justice. Also when it comes to the increasing digitalisation of work and organisations.”