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Remote affective labour?: How COVID-19 accelerated digitalisation of services

Dr Didem Derya Ozdemir Kaya

Organisation and Human Resource Management (OHRM)
Warwick Business School
14th January, 2021

How has the digitalisation of services impacted service practitioners? What are the limitations of delivering affective labour in a digital world?

Service jobs such as coaching, nursing and performance arts involve human contact, communication and emotion management which are affective forms of human labour that technologists struggle most to digitalise or automate (Levy; Murnane, 2004; Manyika et al., 2017). Therefore, both academic and industry researchers consider these jobs as mostly resistant to technology-driven changes and predict that they will remain in-person for the foreseeable future (Frey & Osborne, 2013; Kispeter, 2018). Yet, the COVID-19 social distancing and lockdown measures set off an unprecedented and unforeseen trend of digitalisation.

Saving one's business or job, if classed as non-essential, became dependent on the ability to work remotely after the measures were introduced. In the UK, employees doing some work at home rose by 40% to 46.6% within a month of the national lockdown in March (Cameron, 2020). Not surprisingly, remote work proved challenging for those performing affective labour -which refers to production of wellbeing, joy and social ties. But many of them still moved to digital platforms in an effort to protect their livelihoods and to meet society’s wellbeing needs that grew immensely owing to the pandemic and its ripple effects.

Among those making the digital transition were counselling psychologists, exercise instructors, social workers and teachers with whom I conducted a preliminary qualitative study funded by the Productivity and the Futures of Work GRP at the University of Warwick. The study investigated the impact of Covid-19 on digitalisation of jobs centred on affective labour. The participants -recruited from the UK and Turkey- ordinarily used human contact, interpersonal skills and emotion work as well as utilising purpose designed spaces and specialist equipment when performing their jobs. These factors raised questions about feasibility, effectiveness and durability of their recent transition to digital provision. Higher education, for example, dominated headlines following COVID-19 outbreaks on university campuses, while contact time and quality as well as motivating, engaging and providing pastoral support to students became key issues.

The study shows that categories such as proximity, contact, communication and emotion work commonly used to measure a job’s suitability for being performed digitally are too broad to meaningfully differentiate tasks, practices and forms of interaction involved. For example, all three counsellors I interviewed said their jobs can be best performed in a counselling room because they demand contact. However, when asked to elaborate, one mentioned not being able to see the other person’s body in a video call which limited bodily communication, another complained about not being able to form eye contact which was crucial for providing adequate emotional support, and a third said the bodily resonance enabled by proximity and shared atmosphere was missing. Other participants also saw contact as essential for their jobs but used it in reference to different practices.

Exercise instruction required a form of physical contact known as ‘adjustment’ that was used to correct posture and teachers gauged students mode, understanding and engagement by scanning their faces which was not possible online. As seen in these examples, even within the same profession, human contact takes multiple forms which may or may not be accommodated by existing technology or technology likely to become widely accessible in the near future (full body image can be captured with a better set up but the same cannot be said about bodily resonation). This applies to other key elements of affective labour too. The question, therefore, appears to be not if but how well these jobs can be performed digitally.

The consensus among the interviewed providers is that digital connection is invaluable in times of physical isolation and for those lacking access to the same range and quality of services locally. However, they also talked about how digitalisation limited their ability to perform affective labour employing strong terms such as loss, separation and isolation.

This has significant policy and business implications. For instance, propositions for permanent digitalisation of medical consultation overlook the emotional support and reassurance needed from healthcare professionals and received in person (e.g. Lewis et al., 2020). Whether this need can be adequately met on digital platforms should be a serious consideration. Furthermore, this consideration should extend to affective labour performed across sectors including education, mental health, wellness, catering, care and entertainment. Policy makers, providers and service recipients need to appreciate the complexity and social necessity of affective labour.

Digitalisation of services has been vital for protecting lives and livelihoods during the COVID-19 pandemic and can benefit us by geographically extending provisions in its aftermath. However, long term decisions should be well-informed and based on considerations of quality rather than purely financial calculations. Ill-thought-out decisions can negatively impact quality of life since we rely on these services for wellbeing, joy and socialisation. They may also add to the burden of unpaid affective labour which is already disproportionately carried by women with damaging consequences for gender equality at home and at work.

Dr Didem Derya Ozdemir Kaya is an associate lecturer at Organisation and HRM division of Warwick Business School, University of Warwick.