Technological coupling and context-sensitive assistance systems
The increasing digitalisation of work systems is opening up numerous opportunities for work design to offer employees context-sensitive support. Various issues require attention, including excessively tight technological coupling and the effects of monitoring.
As work becomes progressively more digitalised, assistance systems are increasingly taking over activities and tasks that were previously carried out by people. Ideally, this supports employees' ability to perform their duties. Yet some forms of human-technology interaction can also be linked to risks for employees’ mental health.
Where employees' working tasks are heavily dominated by the time constraints and rigid workflows a technological system imposes, researchers describe this as "tight technological coupling". It is found where cycle times dictate the speed at which employees have to work, for instance when feeding material into machines.
Findings from human factors science show that tight technological coupling between humans and machines may be accompanied by health problems and lower job satisfaction. For instance, people who carry out takt time-paced tasks assess their subjective health less positively than people who are able to work at their own tempo. Furthermore, takt time-paced work can increase the occurrence of psychosomatic complaints.
Despite the possible risks to employees, heavily standardised activities are often essential in order to ensure consistent output and product quality. There is a conflict here that can be addressed in practice by means of good system design. For instance, employees should be allowed a certain degree of flexibility, while the deployment of innovative technologies offers the potential to break up tight technological coupling and contribute to human-centred work design.
Context-sensitive assistance systems are a good example of how innovative technologies can be exploited. These systems provide the individual mental or cognitive support employees need to perform their tasks: the right information, in the right place, at the right time. The support these systems deliver and their capacity to adapt autonomously are founded on the intelligent interconnection of data and information. The constant integration, linkage and storage of data are making electronic monitoring in the workplace ever more feasible.
The potential for their performance to be monitored electronically, the invasion of their privacy and the feeling they are increasingly being controlled in the workplace as a result of advancing digitalisation confront employees with new demands. The consequences can be reduced work motivation and job satisfaction or drops in performance.
The implication for practice is that the principles of transparency and purpose limitation need to be given particular consideration on the basis of the requirements set out in the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). In concrete terms, the electronic monitoring of individual employees should be avoided. It should only be possible to draw inferences from any data that are gathered at the working group or department level, and the data recorded should certainly be anonymised. Advance notice should be given before electronic monitoring is introduced, and comprehensive information about it should be supplied. Employees should have a very clear idea of when data are going to be processed.