Technology is “dehumanising” the retail sector

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Researchers from the Institute for the Future of Work called for a new model of working amid concerns that managers are being replaced by technology

The rollout of new technology is “dehumanising” the retail and logistics sector and replacing middle management with automation, according to Caitlín Doherty, principal researcher at the Institute for the Future of Work.

Speaking at an Institute workshop event, Doherty explained how technology has affected the lives of retail workers. The rise in prevalence of gig platforms, such as software for scheduling shifts and wearable scanners for warehouse workers, has created more insecurity, she said.

“A lot of the time when we talk about insecurity or flexibility in work we think about platform work or the gig economy. We’ve seen that these contract structures and employment statuses are beginning to show up in supermarkets, in high-street retailers, in traditional logistics work. This isn’t entirely new, but we’re trying to track the use of technology and understand this surge in demand for flexibility,” she told HR magazine.

These tools are replacing management and risking harm to retail workers’ wellbeing, Doherty explained.

“Organisations will often say they need to cut costs, and they need to do what’s best for the business. But the way they’re choosing to do this is by enforcing gig economy and platform analytics into the workforce. This gets rid of middle management, which is leading to people becoming dehumanised,” she said.

“Staff have less control over their schedules and their rotas, and they have fewer roles to progress into. It’s an importation of the worst aspects of the gig economy into more traditional sectors like retail.”

Doherty pointed to the Institute's research, which interviewed retail and logistics workers and found that the use of people analytics software in workplaces is making them feel like ‘numbers’. She called on the government and organisations to seek a new paradigm: “We need a new model of working where people are understood not just as capital to be exploited, but as human beings who need to be looked after and have agency, and [where we] make sure they’re getting paid enough to sustain themselves.”

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