How does digitalisation affect workers? According to a new study conducted by the JRC, the use of digital platforms and algorithms for coordinating work processes - known as the platformisation of work - is an emerging phenomenon affecting a small but not marginal proportion of workers and it is likely to grow in the future.
The results, published in The platformisation of work study, are based on an empirical analysis of data collected during personal interviews with 7,000 workers (4,000 in Spain and 3,000 in Germany). The survey was carried out within the research project JRC Algorithmic Management and Platform Work (AMPWork).
The study is pioneer in analysing the impact of digitalisation at work by using direct information from the respondents. It focuses on three key elements of platforms: the digital devices used at work, the digital monitoring of work, and the use of algorithms for work organisation. These three elements are studied in three different contexts: regular work settings, digital labour platforms (DLPs) and content sharing platforms.
Platformisation of work: coordinating work through digital devices
The pervasiveness of digitalisation and connectedness in work, accelerated by the recent COVID pandemic (Telework and teleworkability during COVID: An analysis using LFS data), tends to expand the use of digital devices and tools. However, the findings emphasise that there is still a very sizable minority of workers, around one third of the employed population (38% in Germany and 35% in Spain), who do not use digital devices at all in their jobs. Those not using digital tools at work are under more hierarchical forms of work organisation, but also tend to have less stress at work and more direct communication with peers.
Among the devices analysed, the most commonly used is a personal laptop or computer (55% and 56%, in Germany and Spain respectively), combined in most cases with the use of mobile devices (31% and 27% of all respondents in the respective countries).
Digital monitoring and algorithmic management
The study finds that digital devices are quite frequently used to monitor work processes (working times, physical location, videocalls, internet use, etc.), since most workers in Germany and Spain are subject to at least one form of digital monitoring. The most common one is the tracking of working times, which is reported by around half of all workers in both Germany (50%) and Spain (46%).
Algorithms, especially if powered by AI, can be programmed to make autonomous decisions regarding workers, such as automatically allocating tasks, shifts or instructions. Although the use of digital devices to algorithmically manage work process is less frequent, it is not marginal. The analysis concludes that around 1 in 5 workers in Germany and 1 in 3 in Spain are subject to at least one form of algorithmic management, the automated allocation of work beingthe most widespread form.
What is a platformised worker?
Based on the combined use of digital tools and the presence of algorithmic management, digital monitoring, or both, the JRC study proposes a classification of workers by levels of platformisation. Around 11% of German workers and 24% of Spanish workers are platformised to some extent – with 1% and 6% respectively being strongly platformised, which is associated with monotony and stress at work among other outcomes.
Then, there is a much bigger share of workers (51% in Germany, 41% in Spain) who use digital tools at work but are not subject to digital monitoring or algorithmic management systems. The remaining one third of workers do not use digital tools at work.
By sector, the results show that high technology industries have the highest levels of both strong and soft platformisation, followed by knowledge intensive services.
Work in digital labour platforms (DLPs)
Digital labour platforms (DLPs) use algorithms to match clients who need a service with workers who can provide that service, coordinating the provision of that service. The JRC study finds out that around 1-2% of the working age population in the countries studied have DLPs as their main source of income.
Work in DLPs involves an intensive use of digital devices and tools to carry out the work, and it is associated with high levels of digital monitoring and, predictably, algorithmic management. This implies that, the majority of workers in DLPs are de facto similar to dependent employees because they are directly subject to the algorithmically implemented authority of DLPs.
Although workers in DLPs have higher levels of autonomy and flexibility than traditional employees, the results of the survey reveal that they are also subject to more unsocial work schedules and report higher levels of stress.
Unpaid production of content for sharing platforms
Associated with the platformisation of work, the study also explores the phenomenon of unpaid production of content through digital platforms. It refers to people who produce content for sharing platforms such as Youtube or Instagram, with motivations that range from fun and socialising to publicity or generating income via ads in those platforms.
A significant proportion (more than 20% in Germany, more than 40% in Spain) of the working age population spends some time producing content to be shared outside family and close friends in online platforms: in total, this activity would correspond to almost 5% of the working age population working full-time in Spain, and almost 2% in Germany.
On the other hand, most of the people that engage in this sort of activity do it for fun, which implies that for them this activity is indeed a form of leisure, even though there also is a non-trivial amount of people (especially in Spain) that do it for reasons at least indirectly related to professional or commercial interests (such as publicity, experience or the expectation of future income).
The JRC Algorithmic Management and Platform Work (AMPWork) survey was conducted in Spain and Germany between September 2021 and March 2022. It was designed and coordinated by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, in collaboration with the Directorate General for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion. Fieldwork was carried out by the market research company IPSOS.
The survey covers 3,000 cases in Germany and 4,000 in Spain, being representative of the working age population (16-64). Respondents were selected randomly, only one individual per household was interviewed, always face-to-face in the respondent’s own household.
The AMPWork survey was initially conceived as a follow up of the COLLEEM research project on digital labour platforms and its I and II pilot surveys, carried out in 2017 and 2018. These were limited by the lack of statistical representativeness of the sample and by the difficulties of online data collection.
For these reasons, it was decided that the third edition of COLLEEM (rebranded as the AMPWork survey) would be statistically representative of the full working age population of the selected countries, and that the data collection would be face to face rather than online.
COLLEEM I and II focused on exploring the prevalence and conditions of platform work in Europe, while the AMPWork questionnaire widened the scope and is structured in three main sections: the first section tries to measure the platformisation of regular work; the second section is specifically focused on workers in Digital Labour Platforms (DLPs); and the third section of AMPWork measures the unpaid provision of digital content for sharing platforms.
Fernandez Macias, E., Urzi Brancati, M.C., Wright, S. and Pesole, A., The platformisation of work, EUR 31469 EN, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg, 2023, ISBN 978-92-68-01661-9, doi:10.2760/801282, JRC133016.
- Publication date
- 17 April 2023
- Joint Research Centre