Workers want more involvement when factories go digital

Summary

Employees benefit from new technologies, but want a say in how they’re used, according to a study conducted by researcher at KU Leuven

Industry 4.0

Workers are not against new technologies on the factory floor, but want to be involved when they are introduced, according to research from KU Leuven. Getting employees on-board early in the process and providing training, can reduce the “techno-stress” they may feel when new systems go live.

The project was carried out by KU Leuven’s Research Institute for Work and Society (Hiva) upon request from the ACV trade union. The academics surveyed nearly 4,600 workers from Belgian metal and textile manufacturers where employees are represented by the union. They also talked to union reps for context on each workplace.

The researchers were particularly interested in the introduction of digital systems to manufacturing, sometimes referred to as “industry 4.0”. These systems collect, exchange and analyse large amounts of data, making it possible for manufacturing to become more efficient.

Group effort

“Research into these new 4.0 technologies rarely or never focuses on the employee’s perspective,” said Lise Meylemans of Hiva. “However, they are the ones who have to work with these technologies.”

When asked about working with the new technologies, employees said they experienced more autonomy but also found the work more mentally demanding. This may be because the systems are more complex, involving additional responsibility or engagement.

Training helps smooth the way, but one in five of those surveyed indicated that they were not trained for the introduction of new technology. More than half of the employees questioned said they were rarely, if ever, involved in the introduction of new technologies. Most were only brought in when the new systems arrived on the factory floor.

What’s striking is that employees are not necessarily negative about technological innovations, but they are worried

- Researcher Lise Meylemans

“What’s striking is that employees are not necessarily negative about technological innovations, but they are worried,” Meylemans said. “This can be partly offset by involving them early in the implementation of new technologies and, in addition, training them properly to use the technology.”

The researchers also examined workers’ privacy in this new digital environment, where the systems collect data on where employees are and what they are doing at all times. Around 80% of employees said they were aware this data is collected, but half of them said they were not allowed to see this information.