Bonding in isolation: Worker collectives in the digital space

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About the project

Worker collectives, i.e., formal and informal groups in which workers connect and bond, play a critical role in modern labour and employment relations. These collectives have evolved in an era of workplace digitalization. Our knowledge synthesis is structured to enhance knowledge of worker collectives under workplace digitalization, fill analytical gaps in the examination of these changes, and identify policies to promote sustainable worker collectives in remote, scattered workplaces. We weave together recent academic contributions across several disciplines— including employment relations, management and sociology— and insights from professional reports and other academic sources. Our main focus is on two aspects of worker collectives: collectives for digital workers and the digitalization of unions and other labour organizations. We provide insights on two other aspects as well: enterprise social media and digital communities of practice. For each, we highlight key analyses and findings. We conclude by discussing implications for policy development. In what follows, we present a brief synopsis.

Key findings

  1. Collectives for digital workers

    Digital work arrangements (e.g., online platform work, teleworking) deprive workers of shared physical spaces, hindering co-worker interactions, leading to social isolation and reducing the quality of professional relationships. Digitally mediated workplace relationships also reduce cohesiveness and increase competition among co-workers. The global pandemic furthered this trend of isolation by enforcing socially distanced workplaces. Nonetheless, online communities have become a new way for digital workers to initiate and nurture micro-processes of bridging, bonding and solidarity development among workers. These micro-processes can become a springboard to organize, voice grievances and undertake collective actions. Under what conditions these micro-processes are limited to micro-interactions, are able to trigger larger collective developments or lead to the traditional collective worker remains to be fully explored.

  2. Digitalization of unions and other labour organizations

    Unions are leveraging digital technologies, such as social media and artificial intelligence, to outreach for, organize and build power among traditional and new worker profiles (e.g., gig, freelance, platform workers). Digital communication channels can effectively complement traditional union-organizing strategies. Therefore, digital unionism is recognized as a new strategy for union renewal. Yet many unions are conservative in embracing digital channels to organize and mobilize members. Importantly, new grassroots movements focusing on the promotion of labour rights have centrally leveraged digital technology as a tool to organize collective movements. Interesting future research avenues include examining the intertwining of grassroots movements and unions via digitally enabled organizing strategies, the centrifugal and centripetal forces operant in these situations, and the subsequent reshaping of the collective worker.

  3. Enterprise social media and digital communities of practice

    Some enterprises stimulate employee participation on enterprise social media. Their goal is to stimulate collaboration, innovation and knowledge sharing among dispersed employees. Digital technologies also facilitate a sociability that goes beyond the immediate circles of colleagues. Online communities of practices are found to be effective channels of formal and especially informal knowledge transfer and collaboration. Online communities of practice thus stand at the crossroads of knowledge-seeking and knowledge-sharing activities. These activities allow a community to gain internal and external recognition, empowering the community as a whole, as well as its individual members. It remains to be established whether the "collective worker" is the antecedent, consequence or in fieri actor of enterprise social media and digital communities of practice. Moreover, it remains to be defined to what extent face-to-face relationships are essential in establishing these communities. Nor do we understand the possible limitations of structuring a community on the basis of online-only relationships.

Policy implications

  1. Organizational: Enterprises should promote a surveillance-free online community at the enterprise level as a space where employees can raise their grievances. The enterprise should consider these grievances as relevant employment relations issues. Moreover, enterprise online communities and digital communities of practices should find strategies to limit the possible negative effects of established enterprise knowledge hierarchies and promote a peer-to-peer exchange among employees and practitioners.
  2. Union: To take advantage of innovative digital organizing strategies, unions should overcome their parochialism. The sharing across several unions of the different targets pursued (both union members and grassroots movements), the specific technological tools deployed and the expected and unexpected outcomes of their efforts will improve union knowledge, efficacy and impact in organizing. This might pave the way to strategic online inter-union collaborations.
  3. State: Formal worker collectives are institutionally framed around the world by a set of laws. Yet online worker collectives—while de facto relevant actors in employment relations—are not covered by legislation. The state should define under what conditions online worker collectives can become recognized actors in employment relations and establish their rights. Otherwise, the evolving online bargaining dynamics will sideline the state as a relevant actor in employment relations.

Further information

Read the full report

Contact the researchers

Yao Yao, PhD, assistant professor of human resource management, Telfer School of Management, University of Ottawa:

Lorenzo Frangi, PhD, professor of employment relations, Department of Organization and Human Resources, School of Management, Université du Québec à Montréal:

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