The dilemma between structure and flexibility in digitised office work


Digma researchers Anna Uhlin in Sweden and Irina Popova in the UK have conducted two studies on the digitisation of white collar work. The studies show how employees and managers describe the dilemma between being flexible and being structured in their daily use of digital tools.

Previous research shows how digital tools which enable white collar workers to manage tasks more efficiently and quickly, have implied a corresponding increase in the number of work tasks, resulting in increased stress levels (Sullivan and Gershuny, 2018). But digitisation has also increased bureaucracy; standardisation, control and measurability of employees’ performance, which creates conflicting demands, where office workers simultaneously feel an increase in supervision, increased empowerment and limitlessness in their work (Gullstrand and Brännebo, 2013) In parallel, an “informalisation” of working life has led to a focus that the individual employee must have the "right attitude" to be successful in modern digitised organisations (Allvin et al., 2011).

This is the dilemma that is linked to this "right attitude" which has emerged in our studies. Managers and employees tell us in interviews that a successful office worker should be flexible, and should show an interest in being flexible, in their daily use of digital tools. However in the same interviews it has been described in several ways that successful office workers should be structured, and should want to be structured, in their daily use of digital tools. The choice to be flexible or structured is linked to various locations and different digital tools but also to emotions, social expectations and changing norms in the workplace to which the office worker must be sensitive to.

The unanimity of the results from the DigMa researchers' two studies shows that this daily dilemma is constructed in a similar way regardless of the individual's role in the organisation, the private or public sector, the organisation's digital maturity or geographical country. Furthermore, our studies show that organisations need to support employees with guides for using digital tools and technologies, to reduce digital stress in the workplace.

Eva Lindell