Frequently asked questions
There is a lot of political and social discussion about the extent to which jobs change, appear and disappear with the introduction of physical robots, algorithms and AI in the workplace. Another phenomenon often remains underexposed: these technologies are, at the same time, a means of digitally mapping and monitoring workers. For example, an operating robot that keeps track of how long the surgeon is busy. Or an online assessment in which artificial intelligence assesses an applicant's competencies based on games.
Various digital tools make it possible to measure, analyse and give feedback to workers and/or organisations in real-time. In the publication 'Opwaarderen' from 2017, the Rathenau Instituut showed that the current phase of digitisation is characterised by this constant cycle of measurement, analysis and application (the so-called cybernetic feedback loop). In recent years, more and more business units have been set up in this way. Recently, we see that companies are also shaping their personnel policy in a data-driven way. Through digital technology, organisations can measure such things as emotions, locations, and physical movements of employees. Using algorithms, e-mails and chat messages can identify aspects such as mood, enthusiasm, working hours or absenteeism. Based on this, targeted interventions in personnel policy or in the organisation of work become possible.
We examined recent developments in the application of data and digital technology to monitor workers and what they mean for the quality of work. We speak of 'people who work' because it's not only about people in paid employment or temporary employment structures, but also about people who offer their services as freelancers, whether or not via an internet platform.
Traditionally, employers try to monitor the potential and performance of (potential) employees and improve their performance through targeted interventions. Monitoring is part of the modern employment relationship; the employer wants to prevent inefficiency and misconduct, but achieving good results is also important for the employee themselves. Monitoring comes from monitor, a Latin word for observer, advisor, supervisor (from the verb monēre to be translated as 'remind or warn'). In the sense of 'advisor and guide', 'monitor' has been replaced by 'mentor'.
Thus, monitoring in the workplace is not a new phenomenon, but digital technologies greatly expand the possibilities to give instructions and feedback. This can be done, for example, using GPS and accelerometers, microphones and cameras, fitness trackers and biometric access control, metadata about e-mail and internet use. These digital tools make it easier and cheaper to systematically map and quantify more and more activities and personal qualities.
Our report shows that organisations use monitoring technology not only for monitoring or managing employees, but also for planning and hiring staff and for supporting and developing their staff. Furthermore, we see that monitoring is often no longer limited to working time or workplace and what a flesh-and-blood supervisor might see. Smart algorithms and artificial intelligence can derive insights from the data that the workers may not even know about themselves. In addition, the way in which feedback is received is becoming increasingly subtle and invasive. And a new party is involved: the technology provider. All these aspects are causing labour relations in the workplace to change.
The digital monitoring technology is in line with the desire of many organisations to work more 'data-driven': to make more informed decisions based on facts. This desire exposes a dominant logic in which organisations use data to analyse people. We are moving towards a labour market in which quantitative data becomes decisive for predicting behaviour and for decisions that influence opportunities for labour participation.
However, organisations need to realise that the value of work is difficult to measure using digital instruments, algorithms and artificial intelligence. The instruments are often used to say something about complex issues such as suitability, motivation, health and productivity. Some instruments make questionable connections, for example between facial expression and personality, or between DNA and competencies. Predictions about individual human behaviour also often lack a solid scientific basis. In addition, there is a risk that attention is only paid to what is measurable. The underlying view that humans can be captured in data provides too limited a picture of what valuable work is. The new instruments therefore only partly succeed in gaining a better insight into people in work. The Rathenau Instituut, therefore, calls for a broad social and political discussion about the desirable use of monitoring technology and valuable work (see also the block of recommendations elsewhere on the web page).
Over the past thirty years, the Rathenau Institute has studied the influence of automation and digitization in all kinds of areas of society. Technological developments are rapid and also have an impact on the quality of work. This calls for dialogue and informed political choices. Within the Digital Society theme, we map out what society needs in order to give direction to the digital future itself.
The report 'Valued at work: limits to digital monitoring at the workplace using data, algorithms and AI' was written at the request of the Social Affairs and Employment Committee (SZW) of the Dutch Parliament. The research was conducted from June 2019 to March 2020. The research is part of the 'Changing labour market' theme of the knowledge agenda of the SZW Committee, which can use this report to further expand the collective knowledge on this theme.
This research is a sequel to earlier research by the Rathenau Instituut, including:
- Werken aan de robotsamenleving on the future of work through the rise of robots, the Internet of Things (also at the request of the Parliamentary Standing Committee SZW).
- Eerlijk delen about the sharing economy and the gig economy.
- Robotisering en automatisering op de werkvloer, about business choices when deploying digital technology.
The use of monitoring technology can have a negative impact on the quality of work. Digital tools can affect the privacy of workers, can lead to discrimination in recruitment and selection processes, and can contribute to increasing work pressure. But the discussion about the responsible use of digital monitoring technology should go further. After all, a digital instrument changes employment relationships, both between a worker and an organization and between colleagues, suppliers, customers or supervisors. As a result, digital instruments can lead to an erosion of work tasks and working relationships. We, therefore, call on the social partners, platforms, employees and technology providers to work together to arrive at principles about the desirable use of data on the shop floor and valuable work.
For this report, we did research based on desk research, literature research and interviews. We spoke with technology providers, employers, scientific experts, trade unions, an employers' organisation and a platform. We investigated the new possibilities on the market for digital mapping of workers, their scientific basis, and what these tools mean for the quality of work. We looked at central dimensions of this concept (income, job security and working environment) and at broader social and ethical aspects, such as its meaning for privacy, diversity and inclusiveness in the workplace.
We also looked at the continuous search for a balance between the interests of organisations and employees, and the increasing attention for 'quality of work' in current policy discussions. A legal analysis of relevant legal frameworks was conducted by attorney Joost Gerritsen (Legal Beetle).