Department of Management

Digital Futures at Work Research Centre

The University of Sussex and University of Leeds Business Schools, funded by the ESRC, have come together to establish and lead a Research Centre on Digital Futures at Work (Digit). Headed by Professor Jacqueline O’Reilly (Sussex) and Professor Mark Stuart (Leeds), the Centre will examine how, and with what effects, digital technologies are reshaping the world of work.

The disruption of traditional business models is transforming employment and challenging labour regulations. Employers, governments and worker organisations are struggling to keep pace with the consequences of change. These rapid advances in automation, artificial intelligence, platform technologies and huge increases in digital data present both threats and opportunities for different communities. Opinion is sharply divided around the potential for digital technologies to boost economic growth and productivity while also delivering good quality jobs and social integration.

Commencing in January 2020 and running for five years, the international and interdisciplinary Centre aims to advance our understanding of how digital technologies are reshaping work, impacting on employers, employees, job seekers and governments by providing empirically informed analysis of the benefits, risks and challenges of the impact of new technologies in the workplace.

Professor O'Reilly said: We know that some firms are at the forefront of digital transformations, whilst others are lagging behind. We know that we have some of the best-qualified STEM graduates in the UK, while others lack basic digital skills. And we know that countries vary in their ability to effectively take up some of these challenges. But we don’t always know why these gaps are appearing and what can be done to ensure that digital transformation is inclusive. The Digital Futures at Work Research Centre will have some of these questions at the heart of its investigations to understand not only what is happening in the UK, how this compares internationally, and what needs to be done.

Professor Mark Stuart said: The impact of new technologies on the future of work is one of the most pressing policy concerns of our time. Yet debate is largely speculative. Over the next five years, the Digital Futures at Work Research Centre will embark on an agenda-setting programme of research that will provide compelling evidence on the contemporary transformation of work. The centre will act as a focal point for all those interested in the future of work, providing a much-needed space to bring together academic researchers, policymakers and practitioners to interrogate contemporary developments within a historical, international and comparative perspective. 


Research in this area is nascent. The Centre will address the gap in knowledge through a diverse broad-ranging research programme that includes:

  • Conceptualisation of digital futures, historically, regionally and internationally, comparing the regulation of digital employment and mapping regional and international trends of digital technology and work and its impact.
  • A large-scale survey of employers' digital practices at work
  • Qualitative research on employers' and employees' experiences of digitalisation at work across four sectors: Creative industries, Business Services, Consumer Services, Public Services.
  • Investigation into how public employment services, new types of self-employment, and worker’s responses to building new forms of voice and representation in an international context enable those who lose out to digital technologies reconnect.

 The key research questions are:

  • What factors affect business adoption and use of technologies, ranging from digitalisation to automation, algorithmic management and Artificial Intelligence (AI)?
  • How does the take-up and impact of these technologies vary by sector, region and country?
  • How is the implementation of digital technologies used to transform work and foster good jobs?
  • What effect does this have for different groups of managers, employees, and the self-employed?
  • What happens to displaced workers and how is technology used to help those looking for work?
  • How are employment laws and regulations changing in response to the impact of digitalisation?
  • How are civil society organisations including trade unions and other NGOs responding?
  • How can we draw on different theoretical insights, methodological approaches and comparative experiences to interpret these changes?

The Centre will establish a Data Observatory to act as a library of national and international resources for decision-makers connecting with UK Industrial Strategy and welfare policy.

Across the five years of the centre, an Innovation Fund will also run, which will be an open competition to provide financial support for new research initiatives and methodological approaches, enabling international exchanges and extensive dissemination. The fund will also support Visiting Fellowships to enable researchers and practitioners to spend a period of up to 3 months at Sussex, Leeds or selected partner organisations.

In sum the Centre will provide a scientifically coherent programme of research driving forward innovations in interdisciplinary social science theory on the future of work, drawing on economics, sociology, law, employment relations, management and science and technology policy, and the humanities.

The expected outcomes include:

 i) informing policy and practitioner debates with original comparative, regional and international data;

ii) developing and applying innovative research methods;

iii) supporting career development and

iv) embedding knowledge in a sustainable learning programme.


The effectiveness of the UK Industrial Strategy and the development of AI and the data economy requires a substantial body of empirically informed analysis for the benefit of businesses, unions and policymakers.

The Centre will provide systematic and comparative analyses of employers’ strategies and practices, workers’ attitudes and experiences, in-depth studies on the use of algorithms and data-driven work in practice, and the wider societal implications for regulatory governance about the digital transformation of work. By generating new knowledge on the catalysts and barriers to business adoption of digital technologies at work and their consequences for productivity, job quality and employment effects, including on young people, it will help to inform business, unions and policy decision-makers at a national and regional level in the UK.


University of Sussex Business School (joint lead)

University of Leeds Business School (joint lead)

Professor Claire Wallace, New Europe Centre, University of Aberdeen

Professor Simon Deakin, Director of the Centre for Business Research at the University of Cambridge 

Dr Brendan Burchell, University of Cambridge 

Professor Jill RuberyWork and Equalities Institute at the Alliance Manchester Business School, University of Manchester

Professor Debra Howcroft, Work and Equalities Institute at the Alliance Manchester Business School, University of Manchester

Professor Fang Lee Cooke, Faculty of Business Monash University, Australia.

The Centre also comprises several consumer, business and public services organisations as knowledge exchange partners including: Walmart, Marks and Spencers, Eversheds, The NHS, as well as unions, research organisations and NGOs. These organisations will be involved in the co-production of the research and the interpretation and dissemination of findings.

If you would like to find out more you can sign up to the Digit newsletter on the website.