• Felix Kankwamba

The Corona Crisis: a driver of digital change in the professional world?

May 1st is a significant day, it is "Labour Day". It encourages people to reflect on the situation in the world of work from the point of view of employees. The Corona crisis has brought about major changes in everyday working life. Most employees who would rush to the offices of large and small companies, organisations or public authorities every day find themselves in this state of emergency at their desk or dining table or even on the sofa in their home office. Whether living alone or in a family with one or more children – to a certain extent, everyone has to walk a tightrope between fulfilling their professional duties, taking care of the children and doing the household chores. Two things become clear: on the one hand, the organisation and structuring of everyday working life is a great challenge for employees and companies. On the other hand, a competent implementation of digitisation strategies in the home office is required so that an employee continues to be able to work.

Digitisation has an impact on this changing world of work and on current and future fields and professions. For example, working hours can be extended due to constant availability. As a result, many employees spend more than eight hours a day sitting in front of a computer or are using their smartphones for professional reasons. The line between work and leisure time is becoming blurred.

The Labour Day, the introduction of which is based on the fight for the eight-hour day, takes on a whole new meaning through digitisation. Why is this?

Let's take a brief look back at its origins:

Industrialization, which brought about a modernization of life in general and daily routine in many parts of the world through increased production and new products, also meant a drastic change in the everyday working environment. When production was still predominantly agricultural, people lived according to the rhythm dictated by nature through the basic distinction between day and night, but because of progress and the construction of factory buildings, their working day was now dictated by time clocks. In the middle of the 19th century, depending on the industry and region, people had to endure working days of up to 16 hours (see Schneider 1984). With such a workload, there was little time left for leisure activities. In Germany, the political elite, above all Kaiser Wilhelm II, feared that workers would spend their leisure time and money only in pubs (cf. Giesecke 1983). The German bourgeoisie at least attempted to launch a "reconciliation of the social ranks and classes" (Giesecke 1983, p. 29) with so-called popular entertainment evenings in order to make workers aware of morality and culture (cf. Giesecke 1983). Clubs, especially in sport clubs, did not experience a strong upswing until the beginning of the 20th century. Before that, since people often had to relocate because of changing the job, it was rather difficult for them to remain members in a club (cf. Giesecke 1983).

Working under these conditions caused dissatisfaction among the workers in the second half of the 19th century. On May 1, 1886, some 80,000 workers (cf. Adelman n.y.) gathered at the Haymarket in Chicago, USA, to demonstrate for the introduction of the eight-hour day in employment contracts. After two days of demonstrations, the situation escalated on May 3, when a non-identified perpetrator detonated a bomb. In the resulting chaos, police shot at demonstrators and other police officers. This massacre served as an excuse for many governments around the world to limit trade union movements for a while.

However, the labour movement did not die out completely and consequently had to be included in the political agenda. On May 1, 1890, the Paris Congress therefore called for the celebration of the "World Labour Day" along the lines of the American Federation of Labor, but left open how this day should be celebrated: "These events influenced the decision to proclaim May 1 as the international workers' day of fight for their rights and holiday. Whether it was to be celebrated through a general work stoppage or by demonstrations after work, was left up to each individual country" (verdi o. J., n.p.). Workers who did not show up for work on that day were locked out, disciplined or dismissed by the companies. The question of work stoppage remained unresolved for a long time.

In Germany, the eight-hour day was finally introduced after the end of the German Empire. Trade unions were "recognised as the appointed representatives of the workforce" (verdi n.y., n.p.) and on 1 May 1919 the Weimar National Assembly declared this day a public holiday.

Despite a day that was now only eight hours long, the workplace retained its dominant position in people's lives. Until about 1950, work was "the decisive individual and social centre of life, to which leisure was subordinated" (Giesecke 1983, p. 86). It was not until 1950 that people began to consider work from a different perspective. People saw their gainful employment as merely a factor that was necessary to earn a living (cf. Giesecke 1983). In addition, the image of women has changed over the past decades. The focus of women, which was predominantly on family and household, has changed decisively. Today, it is only normal that women should have a job, just like men have, and with the technical pervasion of everyday life, the changes and demands in both professional and private life have become increasingly serious. Consequently, people are now working far more than 40 hours a week again.

As a result of digitisation and the possibilities of working from home, a clear boundary between professional and private life hardly seems possible anymore. A weekly working time, and the health problems that go with it, as in the industrial age no longer seem unlikely for some occupational groups. The constant presence at work and the constant availability at home due to digital media affect the mental health of more and more employees (cf. Collatz & Gudat 2011). The changed professional situation of many employees leads to new problems in the world of work. The stress caused by digital technologies now requires the ability to consistently achieve work-life balance. Effective and independent organisation and structuring of the working day is now required as a basic competence.

The term work-life balance describes the issue of reconciling work and family life, i.e. a fair division between the two areas with a fixed amount of time dedicated to each: "Work-life balance means a new, intelligent combination of work and private life against the background of a changed and dynamically changing world of work and life" (Collatz & Gudat 2011, p. 5). In addition, companies have become more sensitive to health requirements at the workplace and are trying to meet these with adaptable work organisation, flexible working time models and flexible workplaces (cf. Collatz & Gudat 2011). During the industrialisation period, and even well into the second half of the 20th century, workers could only dream of such humane measures, as the concept of work-life balance only came into focus in the 1990s.

But how can and should work-life balance in line with digitization be implemented in the home office, especially in such problematic and unpredictable times as we are currently experiencing?

Familiar working time models, the eight-hour day as we know it from the well-known office routine, are more difficult to implement. On the one hand, the working day is not structured as usual, and on the other hand, due to the constant availability, many people are tempted to read and answer e-mails, even late at night. Digitization is both a curse and a blessing. It enables us to work on e-mails, make video calls or work together on documents in our home office on our own or on the company’s laptop; however, it is particularly important to maintain a structured working day during this phase, so that we are able to work less "outside" of normal office hours and have enough time to relax. A good work-life balance in home office also requires that we are able to use and operate digital media and be prepared to develop our skills and abilities. A study conducted by the German “Stifterverband“ found that employees will need new key skills in the future, the so-called digital literacy, in order to cope with the world of work 4.0 (see Kirchherr et. al 2018). The OECD is also concerned with the digital transformation of work and has developed a common European reference framework for digital literacy, in which it highlights five areas in particular: information and data processing, communication and cooperation, creating digital information, security and problem solving (cf. Müller-Riedlhuber & Ziegler 2018).

How can we now prepare future generations for an efficient use of digital technologies, taking into account a healthy work-life balance?

The digital change in the world of work will also create new jobs and, as a consequence, new skills and expertise will be required. Digital skills are therefore indispensable in everyday working life and it is important that young people who grow up with digitization as a normal state of affairs are adequately prepared for it. Because they grow up into a digital world, the ability to use information technologies competently is taken for granted in this generation, but this does not always reflect reality. The interactive city maps developed in the Erasmus+ project Metropolis are intended to provide young people with a tool with which they can learn about the professional past and future of their region on the one hand, and practice digital skills on the other. These include computer and information skills, mobile learning and the combination of formal and informal learning. In examining both the professional heritage and the new digital technology, the aim is to identify branches of occupation that have developed from the professional past or have been created from scratch. The connection of young people with their local working environment can be improved with Metropolis. The interactive city maps make young people aware of the need to acquire digital qualifications and skills and they can help them acquaint themselves with the needs of the local labour market.

The boundaries between work and leisure, which originated in the age of industrialisation, are beginning to blur in the digital age. Since its inception, all areas of life have been changing, which poses new challenges for people today. Encouraging early use of digital technologies and the associated career opportunities could better prepare today's young people for a future with flexible working time models and workplaces. Digital tools can help to organise everyday life in order to ensure a good work-life balance. The Erasmus + - Project Metropolis is a European project that can introduce pupils and teachers to a motivating didactic use of digital media. The "Augmented Reality"-application deals thematically with professional change and can thus sensitize future employees to the changing professional world in their region. Perhaps they will soon use "Labour Day" to demand new rights for the new work conditions after Corona.


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