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Mohammad Jarrahi publishes new research on flexible work and algorithmic management

Mohammad Hossein Jarrahi, Associate Professor at the UNC School of Information and Library Science (SILS), is lead author on two recent articles examining how new technologies are shaping the future of work.

SILS Associate Professor Mohammad Hossein Jarrahi
SILS Associate Professor Mohammad Hossein Jarrahi

In “Flexible Work and Personal Digital Infrastructures,” published in the July 2021 edition of Communications of the ACM, Jarrahi and his coauthors review the benefits and risks of expanding flexible work arrangements for both employers and employees.

“Flexible work arrangements reduce commutes and can enable workers with care-responsibilities to stay in the workforce,” the article explains. “However, flexible work arrangements often come entwined with precarity cloaked in emancipatory narratives.”

In addition to unpredictable workloads and fluctuating pay rates, many employees with flexible arrangements are responsible for assembling and maintaining their Personal Digital Infrastructures (PDIs), tools and technologies such as laptops, smartphones, cloud services, and software needed to do their jobs. Rather than a one-time expense, this is likely to become an ongoing burden as workers constantly reconfigure their PDIs to suit the shifting technology landscape, client demands, and task requirements.

While transferring this overhead to workers may provide short-term savings for employers, it can also present many challenges, as security and interoperability issues interrupt workflows, information exchanges, and team interactions, ultimately hurting productivity and the bottom line.

The article concludes that employers must invest more in PDI management and design to both improve conditions for flexible workers and to maintain organizational efficiency.

Algorithmic Management in a Work Context,” published by Big Data & Society on July 1, explores how the rapid development and application of machine-learning algorithms can influence existing power and social structures within traditional work settings. Co-authors for this article include current SILS PhD student Eliscia Kinder and alumnus Will Sutherland (MSIS ’17).

Algorithmic management, in which automated systems make decisions based on data and usually without human oversight, has played a significant role in the expansion of platform-mediated gig work. This includes cloud-based consultants and freelancers who offer professional services online and workers providing offline services such as food delivery, rideshare, and home repair facilitated by platforms like Grubhub, Lyft, and HomeAdvisor. Workers who receive good reviews are given more opportunities while poor performers receive fewer assignments or may be barred from platforms entirely.

Increasingly, algorithmic management practices are expanding to more standard work settings. Companies are using algorithms to filter job applicants, evaluate employee performance, and identify which actions will have the largest impact on worker morale.

Jarrahi and his coauthors examine how algorithmic management evolves through organizational choices and how it increases the power of managers over workers while simultaneously decreasing managerial authority. They also discuss how technical competencies and attitudes can shape the implementation and impact of this new approach.

“While public concerns today focus on machines taking jobs from humans, care and concern is also needed around how these machines will contribute to the management of human actions,” the authors explain in the article’s conclusion.