Work 4.0 – risks and opportunities

What it takes to enable good work

Trade unions, policy makers, and ministries are discussing the risks and opportunities of a digitalised world of work. But what does it really mean for employees and the future of work? A brief introduction.

Risks and opportunities of a digitalised world of work

“The debate about work 4.0 usually implies that the risks and opportunities of a digitalised world of work are distributed equally,” says Annelie Buntenbach, member of the DGB’s National Executive Board, in an article published by Zeit Online. But how do businesses, policy makers, and trade unions see the potential advantages and disadvantages of an increasingly digitalised world of work?

Opportunities – what businesses say

According to the Cologne Institute for Economic Research, employees will enjoy greater autonomy in completing their tasks and benefit from customised workplace design. This may help to reduce physical stress, notably through personalised ergonomic workplace design and stress mitigation, which is particularly important for employees growing older.
Likewise, workplace locations and working hours will become more flexible based on home office or mobile work settings, making it easier to reconcile work and family life. Thus, it can be observed that female employees who have children under the age of 14 to care for are more likely to work from home at least occasionally. Moreover, the time that home workers would otherwise spend commuting may be used for other purposes. So digital means of communication have the potential to facilitate collaboration, both among employees at the workplace as well as in home office or mobile work settings.

Risks – what trade unions say

By contrast, a 2016 DGB study on how digitalisation is impacting the quality of work (10th sample survey of the DGB index measuring good work (“Gute Arbeit”)) found that digitalisation does not automatically relieve pressure on employees. So, 56 percent of the persons surveyed stated that their workload had risen as a result of digitalisation, and 54 percent complained that multitasking led to higher stress levels at the workplace. Only 27 percent and 24 percent of interviewees, respectively, declared that their scope of decision-making or work-life balance had improved.

Annelie Buntenbach, member of the DGB’s National Executive Board, thinks that working models with flexible working hours such as telecommuting actually make job stress worse, because they facilitate a culture of work where “working hours are extended beyond normal limits, people are reachable all the time, and workloads increase”, thus putting additional pressure on employees rather than taking it off them.

Solution approaches to protect employees

Legal security in a digital working environment

Last year, a dialogue on work 4.0 (“Arbeiten 4.0”) was launched by Federal Minister of Labour Andrea Nahles (SPD) to make sure that increased flexibility from digitalisation will benefit employees, too. One of its priorities was the development of a legal framework governing co-determination, social security, effective health and safety management, and self-determination for employees. The results of the dialogue have been compiled in a green paper on work 4.0 (“Grünbuch Arbeiten 4.0”) already published in 2016 and in the subsequent white paper (“Weißbuch Arbeiten 4.0”). Key topics include co-determination rights regarding the introduction of new technologies, the maintenance of fair salaries and wages, and greater security with respect to flexible working time models.

Continuing education

Continuing education of employees is of paramount importance. Adapting existing qualifications to new tasks and responsibilities will help secure jobs in a working environment continuously changed by new technologies and working requirements.

Health management and work 4.0

The aim of modern health management is not only to relieve the physical and mental strain on employees in a digital world of work. Increasingly, it also focuses on preventing disease and building personal resilience among employees. This includes prevention in the form of corporate health promotion programmes as well as HR policy measures such as trainings on health-conducive leadership.

Digitalisation of work and co-determination

The digitalisation of work and introduction of new technical elements touches on many aspects of co-determination.

Work 4.0 and continuing education

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