Exploring the digital future of work

The ESRC-funded Digital Futures at Work research centre (Digit) exists to find out how new technologies are changing the world of work – from retail and the public sector to finance and business services.

“Too much speculation and too little empirical evidence – that’s the problem,” says Professor Jacqueline O’Reilly. “Individually, we may feel that there has been a massive acceleration in the way we work with digital technologies but, as researchers, we know that anecdotes are not evidence.” It was from a desire to fill this gap in evidence that the ESRC-funded Digital Futures at Work research centre – known as Digit – was born.

Established in January 2020 with a fiveyear, £8 million grant from the ESRC, the Centre is co-led by the University of Sussex Business School and the University of Leeds Business School, with partners at the Universities of Cambridge, Manchester, Aberdeen and Monash in Australia. With questions about remote and hybrid working, automation and algorithmic decision-making at the centre of public and policy debates – and made more salient by the pandemic – it seems the ESRC made a very timely investment.

“For years, the conversation around technology and work has been dominated by the idea of job replacement,” says Professor O’Reilly, the Centre’s Co-Director. “The media love a ‘robots are stealing our jobs’ story. But it’s increasingly clear that the future of work isn’t going to be that simple: in many cases, it’s augmentation not automation we are seeing. Our research at Digit aims to illuminate and bring evidence to a debate too often characterised by speculation and hype.”

“I am really proud of the way we have been able to build a network of researchers across the UK and internationally”

Digital acceleration - don't believe the hype?

While the pandemic led to a flurry of headlines about the great digital acceleration, there is still a lack of reliable, empirical evidence about how far such acceleration has occurred. One key strand of Digit’s research is the first nationally representative survey of employers’ digital practices at work. The aim is to discover the extent to which new technologies are being adopted, why or why not, and how they are being used. Initial findings will be published in early summer, 2023.

Alongside the survey, Digit researchers are conducting several in-depth case studies examining the impact of digital technologies in different sectors, including retail, finance, public sector and the creative industries. Case studies looking at the use of AI in manufacturing and financial services also form part of a major OECD report, published in early 2023, that considers the implications of AI use in these sectors in eight countries.

The digitalisation of retail

The retail sector, which accounts for almost 10% of UK jobs, is undergoing rapid transformation as a result of digitalisation and the after-effects of the pandemic. One development is the advent of ‘dark stores’ and ‘q-commerce’ – rapid-delivery models that rely on networks of micro-fulfilment centres and delivery drivers. Digit research fellows Dr Wil Hunt, Dr Steve Rolf and Dr Rachel Verdin have examined how employment within these models differs from traditional retail jobs and other jobs in the platform economy. The findings of their research on this issue with European think tank the Foundation for European Progressive Studies (FEPS) were published in early 2023.

Working with Walmart

A strong focus on knowledge exchange is at the heart of the Digit research programme, and researchers have worked closely with both policy and business. Dr Hunt, now a permanent lecturer in the Business School, worked with Walmart to study the implementation of the company’s new AI-based hiring system. Introduced during the pandemic, when the company recruited more than 460,000 new workers in its US stores, the machine-learning algorithm helped to manage the huge volume of applicants. Dr Hunt found that human interaction with the new technology was mixed. “Some staff used it automatically, not really understanding exactly how it worked; others were much more sceptical, preferring to rely on their own assessments,” he explains. “Trusting the recommendations was key to whether staff would use the system in the way intended.”

Developing mid- and early-career researchers

One important objective of Digit’s work is to support the development of midand early-career researchers (MECRs). Dr Emma Russell and Professor Dimitra Petrakaki work closely with the Centre’s 90 MECRs – providing a range of events and opportunities to help them connect and develop their skills. Ongoing support includes mentoring, training and the opportunity to present and receive feedback at regular seminars. This crossdisciplinary feedback can be a valuable challenge to siloed thinking and helps to open up new perspectives.

Several Digit MECRs have now moved on to permanent lectureships or professorships, and Digit PhD student Lorraine MacKenzie is taking up a sought-after placement at the Department for Work and Pensions.

The 18 Marie Jahoda visiting fellows funded by the Centre have collaborated on topics including digital surveillance at work, blockchain skills in the UK and Ireland, and how AI technologies may shape the roles of HR professionals.

Digit has also funded 16 Digit Innovation Fund one-year research projects, in which PIs conduct their own projects in line with Digit research themes. Dr Ayomikun Idowu, for example, investigated whether young people in the UK and Nigeria can earn a sustainable income from selling clothes on digital resale platforms such as Depop or Jumia. His research, with Monica Richards and Jacqueline O’Reilly, found that, while opportunities to make this a stable income stream for young people in the UK seemed limited to a few top sellers, in Nigeria it was seen as a more sustainable form of work. The findings are published in a report for the International Organisation of Employers, part of the UN’s International Labour Organization (ILO).

Looking ahead to the next three years

The first three years of the Centre have seen 50 publications, more than 90 presentations at academic and industry conferences, five working papers, 36 Digit Debates seminars from leading thinkers and 35 blogs. There is plenty more to come, with plans to produce a report for policymakers and business leaders about the Centre’s major survey findings, as well as a series of policy briefs.

“I am really proud of the way we have been able to build a network of researchers across the UK and internationally,” reflects Professor O’Reilly. “These are people working at the forefront of their disciplines to understand the significant changes in the way we are working. Collectively, we are bringing real empirical evidence to the table about how these changes are progressing at different rates and their effects on firms and employees. While we have achieved a lot in the past three years, the varied pace of changes indicates that there is so much more to know. We are just at the tip of the iceberg.”

About the researcher Prof Jacqueline O'Reilly RR

Prof Jacqueline O'Reilly is Professor of Comparative Human Resource Management at the Department of Management

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Digital Futures at Work Research Centre (Digit) (digit-research.org)