Technology-induced atypical work forms – STOA project 98/0801

Executive summary (*)

A profound shift is occurring in the nature of advanced industrial economies. We are moving towards a "networked economy" in which firms must respond to greater competition, globalisation, changing consumer demands and other business changes. These firms require a new kind of workforce, which is "flexible" and "adaptable". These factors are at the core of the development of atypical work forms, more or less supported by ICTs. Workers engaged in "atypical" work (work timing, work contracts, work location) remain the minority, but are becoming an increasingly significant minority and the pace of change is accelerating in the 1990s. This trend has clear social impacts and poses important challenges, such as the future of labour law or the future of the Welfare State.

1. Technology induced atypical work forms

Some of atypical work forms (most obviously part-time working) are long-standing and pre-date recent developments in ICTs. However, ICTs are playing a role in the extension of several of these practices. We have considered atypical work patterns under four headings.

1.1. Atypical working time

Atypical working time refers to a variety of working situation: part-time working, weekend working, flexi-time working, twilight-shift working, night-time working, overtime working, on-call working. Employers have always used a range of non-standard or atypical working time arrangements. ICTs are, however, clearly involved in new arrangements in the timing of work and employment and in the diversification of time patterns. For the employees, the option of atypical working time is not always voluntary; in many cases, mainly for women, it is imposed by the conditions of the labour market.

Atypical work-time potentially has both positive and negative social impacts. On the one hand, it allows workers to organise their work to suit their own lifestyles. In some ways these arrangements can be regarded as "family friendly", though there is a lack of research on the long-term effects of such arrangements. On the other hand, atypical working time can reinforce existing discriminations on the labour market (e.g. gender discriminations) and lead to a deterioration of working conditions. Another danger is that if new forms of work, such as temporary, evening and weekend work, become the norm, premium payments for options such as overtime working and unsocial hours working disappear, thus reducing income. Another risk is that unpaid overtime and "presenteism" become the norm, particularly for managerial and professional workers, to the detriment of their non-work life.

1.2. Atypical work contracts

Atypical work contracts also consist of both classical work patterns and new ones: fixed-term working, job sharing, annualised hours, "zero-hours" and performance related pay systems. ICTs make it easier to manage the organisation of such working. New technology is clearly implicated in the revival of various forms of performance related pay (PRP) systems.

The introduction of certain atypical work arrangements can have benefits for both employers and workers. For instance, job sharing provides an opportunity for combining work and non-work responsibilities. A particular problem for these atypical workers is their access to promotion and career development apportunities. The impact of other forms of atypical contract, however, may not be so positive from the perspective of the employee. For example, reviewing a number of studies suggests that temporary work, probably the key area of atypical contract growth, is generally not desired by employees. Career prospects for temporary workers are likely to be less assured than for permanent workers and they run the danger of becoming part of a "peripheral" or "contingency" workforce. They may also receive less training, though on the positive side they are likely to pick up broader experience and be more flexible.

1.3. Atypical work location

Atypical work location refers to remote office working, mobile working, hot desking and hotelling, home working, telecommuting, telecottaging, remote computer supported teamwork (CSCW). Remote working or distance working, using ICTs to communicate with other parts of the organisation, business clients or end-consumers, is the area where it is easiest to make the link between ICTs and new atypical forms of work.

Of the types of atypical work location only teleworking from home has been subject to the most exhaustive study. There is only a limited literature on mobile working and CSCW. In neither case does it have much to say on outcomes for mobile and distance workers. Whilst some travel time can be saved, other organisational changes which are associated with mobile working may increase work intensification. There is a need for more empirical research in this area, specifically focusing on outcomes for workers.

1.4. Job detachment

Job detachment refers to various types of working status: employed by agency, self-employed contractor, employed by third party supplier, work contract transferred to third party supplier. Technology is implicated in these process in a number of ways, though again it is arguable whether it is the proximate cause.

The trend towards job detachment is perhaps one of the most important aspects of atypical working. New individualised contracts replace traditional contracts, giving additional rewards and work opportunities to those staff who are skilled and are prepared to be flexible and geographically mobile. The growth of workers contracted to private sector employment agencies is also a significant development. However, there are several disadvantages to these arrangements for the worker. There is little opportunity for career development, though temporary workers may get an opportunity to show their abilities within the principal organisation and be employed on a longer term basis. The situation regarding the legal status of the worker’s relationship to the agency varies from country to country.

2. The links between new technologies and atypical work forms

2.1. A new wave of technological innovation, dominated by communication

Most of the recent technological developments in the area of IT and telecommunications, such as the Internet, mobile telephones and multimedia, have forwarded the notion of communication: our economies will henceforth rely on distance communication and exchange networks. This priority accorded to communication distinguishes the current wave of information technologies from that of the 1980s, where the use of IT concerned in particular the automation of operating tasks: robotics, computer-aided design and manufacturing, databases, word processing, data transfers, etc. Besides the Internet, mobile communication and multimedia, some of the significant technological innovations are lesser known for the general public but they have also changed the ways companies are organising themselves. Here we can mention in particular groupwork software ("groupware") and workflow management software ("workflow"), which facilitate the organisation and execution of joint activities, internal business networks (Intranet) or even telephones integrated within computers, as have been implemented in call centres, for example. These new technologies are also at the origin of a number of new services (teleservices) and new work forms (distance work), which are gaining more and more sectors and private or public companies.

2.2. The supporting, but not determining role of technology

The development of atypical work forms is linked to new trends in work organisation. The new organisational models have a common purpose, they try to gain more flexibility and they are based on principles such as just-in-time, network enterprise, outsourcing, etc. ICTs do not of themselves determine changes in work patterns (or indeed other social outcomes). Changes in production (and by extension in work patterns) often happen independently of technological change, but are then "extraordinarily enhanced" by the new information technologies. This implies that the impact of new technologies is a political matter in the broadest sense of the term and we would expect to see different outcomes from country to country. ICTs provide both challenges and opportunities. It is the "institutional filter" that influences to a great extent their net impacts on societies and economic systems.

3. Challenges and options for policy at the EU level

3.1. Challenges for the future of work

The development and the diffusion of technology induced atypical work-forms are closely linked to key issues that characterised the future of work in the information society.

3.2. Paths for policy options

De-linking work status and social rights

One of the reasons why atypical jobs can lead to social exclusion is the fact that social rights and social protection are closely linked to work status. As the diversity of work forms will probably continue to increase, it will becomes more and more necessary to find concrete systems allowing a disconnection between work status and social rights. Recent proposals, which are already being discussed at the European level , develop policy proposals aimed at de-linking work status and social rights, without weakening any of them:

EU institutions (Parliament, Social and Economic Council, Social Dialogue) must explore leading edge scenarios and proposals. This appears to be the only way to remove the "atypical" character of current atypical work forms, rather than trying to attach them at the margin of existing schemes of social security.

Atypical work as a possible answer to social needs

Atypical work forms and technology induced work forms can propose an answer to specific social needs. They can encounter the need for integration of specific groups of individuals: people with disability, illness or reduced ability to work. Atypical work forms can also be considered as alternatives to traditional routes into work.

Flexible or transitional labour markets can play a socially useful role in achieving the wider societal goals of bringing the disadvantaged into employment. Policies in this area should, however, be accompanied by measures which seek to ensure equal social rights in the diverse atypical labour markets.

Developing different levels of industrial relations

At the "central" level of social dialogue (National or European level), two means can improve the regulatory framework: social dialogue, promoted by the social partners, and legislation, promoted by parliaments and governments. The use of collective bargaining rather than legislation might help finding solutions which are more flexible and suitable to the needs of workers and enterprises. Controversially, legislation covers a wider range of situations, including those which are peripheral in the system of industrial relations. Legislation and social dialogue are however not mutually exclusive. They represent two complementary forms of democratic debate: parliamentary debates and social relations.

The decentralised level of social dialogue has other specific advantages: it is the only one where practical aspects of economic constraints, work organisation and workers’ demands can be encountered together. At this level, participatory practices go beyond traditional industrial relations and involve work organisation and human resource management issues and can also improve "economic democracy".

The variety of atypical work forms and the diversity of workers’ interests requires a plural system of social dialogue, combining legislation and collective agreements at European, national, sectoral and enterprise levels. EU policy should enhance the cohesion of such a complex system.

Promoting flexible schemes for working time reduction

Although the main policy goal of working time reduction is to reduce unemployment and create new jobs, there are many indirect links between the issues of working time reduction and atypical work. Whatever should be the way to achieve working time reduction – either through direct bargaining between social partners or through a law followed by decentralised negotiation of its application – the concrete experience shows that many practical measures deal with problems related to atypical work (flexible working time schedules; overtime ; status of some categories of part-time workers).

Flexible schemes of working time reduction can improve the trade-off "less working time against more flexibility" and reduce the negative side-effects of flexible work practices. They can also improve the employment conditions of part-time workers, reduce overtime and give better opportunities for life-long training. EU policies should provide general guidelines for flexible working time reduction and spread best existing practices.

Specifying the roles of the different stakeholders in employability and life-long learning

If the concepts of "employability" and long-life learning are to become more than "buzz-words", a number of "stakeholders" will need to take concrete action. These include government, enterprises, employment agencies, trade unions, and individuals. The key policy issue is the delimitation of stakeholders’ roles in the development of employability, in order to achieve a suitable balance between the interests of employers and employees and the regulating role of public authorities, without restricting the margin of individual initiatives for lifelong education. Such an issue has an undeniable European scope, even if negotiations must also take place at decentralised levels.

One of the areas where European initiatives are most important is the "skills portability", practically illustrated by the debate on "skills passports". Social agreements and / or legislation at the EU level should ensure that skills passports will not be implemented at the detriment of the worker and that they should achieve long-term qualifying purposes rather than short-term solutions in segmented labour markets. European institutions such as the Dublin Foundation and CEDEFOP can support the development of practical measures for skills portability and employability.

The future of the welfare state

If atypical work is growing and traditional employment decreasing, a new financing system of social security will be required which will not be centred on employee contribution. More generally, often much of the flexibility required by enterprises and economic systems is obtained at the expenses of social security nets. Among the challenges for the Welfare State linked to the development of atypical work forms, three issues can be pointed out: