Automation, the march of the ‘digital giants’ and the future of work examined in Covid-19 rapid review

June 10, 2020

The Future of Work Commission and the Institute for the Future of Work have collaborated on a rapid review of the world of work after Covid-19.  They say:

“Covid-19 has transformed the way we live and work. By disrupting the world of work, it has forced us to re-examine the purpose and value of work for people, for communities and for society. Our renewed attention to these questions should inform our response to the pandemic, guiding us as we rebuild a fairer and more resilient future of better work.”

The report has three parts:

  • Part 1 outlines an aspiration for the purpose and value of good work, informed by the changes caused by the pandemic.
  • Part 2 places this aspiration within an analysis of work and labour market trends.
  • Part 3 outlines a vision for how to build a better future of work and a fairer, more resilient economy. 

It makes recommendations under several headings, including a good work strategy, providing security to protect people’s futures, and creating, protecting and measuring good work.

The report details five trends shaping the future of work, several of which are of interest to tech lawyers, including the accelerated pace of technology adoption and of automation; and the “march of the digital giants”.


The report argues that argue that ‘automation’ should be recognised as an expansive phenomenon: the integration of technology for a range of uses such as the design, organisation and structure of business models and jobs which shape the lived experience of work and the structure of the economy that provides work. The pandemic has introduced new demands for the use and application of technology. Tasks need to be performed or augmented by data-driven technologies to reduce human contact; remote work needs to be monitored and overseen by data-driven technologies; rationales for investment in technology are changing as the economy contracts; and the pandemic is rapidly affecting the supply of labour, and public attitudes to the uptake of new technologies too.  This is likely to result in some enduring transformations which will affect the number and quality of jobs.

The report also highlights technical “micro-management” and surveillance which needs to be controlled as people increasingly work remotely.

March of the “digital giants”

Market power is increasingly being concentrated into the hands of a few corporates. This is leading to lower quality jobs and also to fewer High Street roles which can be supervised by local licensing teams. Secondary effects on work, as well as the terms and fairness of agreements with the platforms including data-sharing, need attention. Income inequality is at its highest level since 1945 and the benefits of technology concentrate in a smaller sector of society. They are also leading to more self-employed models and downward pressure on pay. While some platforms are known actively to resist workers’ rights to unionise and express collective voice, the technologies and methods of ‘algorithmic management’ found in other sectors reproduce similar issues, and severely limit individuals’ autonomy in their experience at work. According to the report, some services which Amazon and others provide need to be regulated as utilities.

The report’s recommendations

Among the recommendations are: 

Encourage responsible adoption of data-driven technologies

Technology underpins growth and must be incentivised and supported across the country. However,  adverse effects are not evenly spread out and technology design and adoption must be people-centred and designed to enhance human work, freeing employees from drudgery and allowing them to be creative, social and dynamic. To achieve this, policy levers must promote socially-responsible adoption of data-driven technologies, ensuring use puts people first and that adverse impacts are assessed and addressed.

Enhance individual, collective and government control over digital giants

The pandemic has demonstrated that major platforms provide part of the essential infrastructure for our work, workers and economy. Regulation must protect competition principles, making the first moves towards treatment of some services as a utility. This would help rebalance wide asymmetries of information, wealth and power between platforms and competitors, citizens and workers. 

Update competition law – and consider effects on good, local jobs

The power and wealth of the tech giants is adversely affecting the creation and quality of British jobs and decent work. Moreover, workers increasingly depend on the services provided, in the same way that they depend on our digital infrastructure. Therefore, as the first important step towards recognising the essential and public nature of the service for workers and small businesses, as well as the wider public, national competition law must support government initiatives to create good jobs and build resilience.

The government should speedily implement the Furman Review as a minimum commitment to ensuring that the principles of competition law are working properly, and can be enforced, in the age of digital markets. These include setting up a new digital markets unit, a code of competition conduct, policies to support portability and data mobility and an update to merger policy.

Additionally, the public interest test must be amended to expressly require the assessment and consideration of direct and indirect effect of proposed mergers, such as the takeover of Deliveroo by Amazon, on the creation and destruction of jobs and work quality. The report proposes a Charter that could be used as a checklist.

The Competition and Markets Authority should also have an increased remit, functions and funding to allow market investigations and expand behavioural remedies in line with the new public interest test. Public reporting on the impact of mergers on good jobs and work quality should be required to increase public understanding and inform further regulation as appropriate.