New forms at work

person in a car

Human work exists in a context characterized by people, organization and technology. Fundamental changes in one of more of these dimensions therefore also have an effect on work, and in particular the circumstances and opportunities that accompany particular forms of work, the requirements placed on specific work processes or equipment and the strains and stresses to which individuals are exposed as a result of their work. It is thus that new forms of work emerge which are different to existing forms of work in key aspects.

Changes can essentially occur in any of the three dimensions, with the most conspicuous currently witnessed in the field of technology, and in particular information and communication technology. The following represent just some of the fundamental changes currently taking shape:

In the people dimension:

  • The merging of work and leisure time;
  • Shifting individual and social values, e.g. work as a means of self-realization);
  • Pressure to continue working into old age;
  • Increasing self-responsibility for health and qualification.
In the organization dimension:

  • Globalization of markets and processes;
  • Mobilization of processes and people;
  • Increasing knowledge-based work processes;
  • Development of new corporate structures (private public partnerships, virtual companies, networks and alliances, temporary work, outsourcing);
  • Use of new spatial and workplace concepts (non-territorial workplaces, desk sharing, open-plan offices).
In the technology dimension:

  • Increasing permeation of work processes with information and communication technology;
  • Development of high-performance mobile information technology;
  • Use of new technical work equipment.
Depending on their intensity, and in some cases other factors, these fundamental changes can also lead to changes in the world of work. Traditional forms of work which have predominated to date may alter or die out altogether, yet this will be offset – or indeed caused – by the emergence of entirely new forms of work. To give an example, the development of new corporate structures and shifting individual views on the role of work have already combined to create new individual forms of work such as freelancing. Where the mobilization of people and processes is concerned, effective mobile IT-supported work has only become possible thanks to the arrival of high-performance mobile information technology.

Examples of such new forms of work which emerge as a result of change or a combination of changes in the three above-mentioned dimension include:

  • Freelancing;
  • Mobile IT-supported work;
  • Call centre work;
  • Temporary or subcontracted work;
  • Work in virtual organizations;
  • Outsourcing
New forms of work also expose working people to new stresses, for example:
  • New stresses related to individual factors (age, self-imposed pressure to perform, high expectations, lack of social ties, lack of qualification, isolation);
  • New stresses related to organizational factors (leadership, communication, culture, time and work pressure);
  • New stresses related to technological factors (inscrutability of technology, ergonomics, technology as a heteronomous influence).
The safe, health-conscious design of new forms of work is an extremely difficult task. There are three reasons for this:

  1. On the one hand, change stimuli can be fundamental. Examples of such primary change stimuli include entirely new technological innovations which are integrated into the world of work. On the other hand, change can result in additional, secondary change stimuli – which in turn lead to tertiary change stimuli and so on. It is expedient to initially base work design on primary change stimuli. The classification of change stimuli as primary, secondary, tertiary and so on is not a trivial process.
  2. Stress factors can originate in a variety of areas. In addition to classical factors such as work equipment ergonomics, lighting and noise, under-developed business processes, a lack of or over-hierarchical leadership culture and a negative company environment can also be sources of negative stress factors. Though work design should ideally adopt a holistic approach to stress factors, it is nevertheless difficult to analyze so many different sources of stress.
  3. Relationships between change stimuli and actual changes or change factors and resultant strains are not necessarily monocausal. Whereas the causality between excessive noise exposure during an employee’s working life and the development of noise-related partial deafness as an occupational disease in generally easy to describe in classical scenarios, the causal relationship between a specific factor related to corporate culture and the development of a cardiovascular complaint is almost impossible to prove.

Findings of relevance to the design of new forms of work with consideration of occupational safety and health have therefore are only available in the case of a few of those forms of work, and even then neither comprehensive nor systematic. In view of the increasing spread of new forms of work, there is a need for considerable action in this regard.

Contact

Dr. Markus Kohn
Safety and Health Department
Tel.: 02241 231-1329