Digital technologies and workplace relations: Managers, colleagues, trade unions

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About the project

Prior to the onset of COVID-19 in winter 2020, teleworking was already having a dramatic impact on the dynamics of employment relations. These deep changes were accelerated and broadened by the social and economic crises that accompanied the pandemic. In sectors that had little experience with it, teleworking was introduced as an emergency response. Now that work modality is being considered as the prevailing and desired arrangement for the years to come. The current synthesis has been structured to enhance knowledge of teleworking as an alternative work arrangement, to fill several analytical gaps in the examination of these changes, and to identify effective policies for simultaneously promoting organizational performance and labour rights. This report contains a review of recently published academic contributions in employment relations and cognate disciplines, together with some insights from practitioners and consultants. Our focus is on three core workplace relations: manager-to-employee; colleague-to-colleague; and union-to-employer. For each topic, we highlight key findings, the research tools deployed to uncover them, and the implications they have for research and policy development.

Key findings

  1. Teleworking arrangements change workplace dynamics and challenge traditional conceptualizations of employment relations. Remote teleworking is fluid; it redesigns workplace relations between managers and employees, among colleagues, and between unions and employers. Such a configuration makes employment relationships more complex and fragile. Employment relations dominated by digital technologies can be easily exploited by managers to expand surveillance and tighten control over employees. Paradoxically, some employees crave the flexibility of teleworking, thinking that it favours a better work-life balance. In fact, most teleworkers suffer from performance anxiety and take on much higher workloads. Identifying with remote colleagues and developing a sense of collective belonging become harder than in the traditional workplace. Remote colleagues can become a source of anxiety; competition and surveillance among peers can be enhanced by technology that makes the efforts of “invisible” colleagues “visible.” Cleavages among colleagues can deepen. In the absence of a workplace, union organizing and negotiating are extremely challenging.
  2. To avoid detrimental consequences, managerial support becomes more central for improving employee well-being and enhancing organizational performance. Teleworkers must have voice regarding working conditions that should match their specific work-life balance needs. Colleague-to-colleague relationships can be improved by promoting social events, creating surveillance-free spaces for socializing, and encouraging relations among colleagues to move from work-related tasks and compliance to personal issues. Finally, the negative consequences of teleworking are limited when employees have collective voice and working conditions are set in a collective agreement. Union organizing for teleworkers requires new digital strategies that combine common frames with diverse messages targeted to specific employee groups. Workplace negotiating can enhance job satisfaction with teleworking arrangements. This can be reinforced by negotiations at the sectoral, national and supranational level for teleworkers. “Umbrella” protection for non-unionized employees can be provided by labour laws and employment protection legislation.
  3. There are gaps in our understanding of the impact of teleworking on employment relations. Extant research provides important insights, but the evidence remains exploratory, or at best, correlational. Evidence needs to be validated externally and causal relationships need to be explored and established. By leveraging well-honed frameworks, like network analysis, fine-grained evidence will emerge and the understanding of employment relations in teleworking can be enhanced. Finally, applied and experimental research must be undertaken to test the efficacy of proposed policy implications.

Policy implications

  1. Organizational: To relieve stress among teleworkers, employers should develop policies to limit use of digitally enabled surveillance and control by managers, which could be abused among colleagues. To overcome isolation, managers should be trained to be supportive and open to discussing working arrangements by developing emotional intelligence. To benefit well-being, organizations should favour relationship building, nurturing and bonding among colleagues. There should be support channels that allow for the expression of collective voice by teleworkers.
  2. Unions: To create solidarity across dispersed teleworkers, unions must develop innovative digital organizing strategies with a common frame and more specific frames for groups of teleworkers manifesting different needs. A forefront strategy for protecting the rights of teleworkers is the coordination of efforts with workers and other unions spanning from home to workplace to international coalitions. Bargaining directly with the state for the implementation of specific labour legislation is of paramount importance.
  3. State: Governments should promote laws that limit organizational surveillance of employees, favour the creation of spaces for teleworking employees to express collective voice within organizations, and provide resources for active labour market policies to jointly train managers, employees and unions on measures that address the challenging aspects of telework.

Further information

Read the full report (in French)

Contact the researchers

Lorenzo Frangi, PhD, Associate Professor, Department of Organization and Human Resources, ESG-UQAM, Montréal, Quebec;

Anthony C. Masi, PhD, Professor of Industrial Relations and Organizational Behaviour, Desautels Faculty of Management, McGill University, Montréal, Quebec;

The views expressed in this evidence brief are those of the authors and not those of SSHRC, NSERC, CIHR and the Government of Canada.

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