Blog series #1: The Digitalization of Working Worlds

Dr. Alice Melchior is a postdoc at GESIS – Leibniz Institute for the Social Sciences and does research on digitalization. In her research on the digitalization of working worlds, she finds connections to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the first part of our blog interview, she explains constraints in which digitalization is embedded.

Name / Institute:
Dr. Alice Melchior
GESIS – Leibniz Institute for the Social Sciences Department: Knowledge Exchange & Outreach
Leibniz Section B

Research topic:
The Digitalization of Working Worlds

Main featured instrument or technique:
Qualitative interviews and observations

“I am restraining myself to mostly virtual interactions like classic video conferencing, online pub quizzes, and virtual workouts.”

How has COVID affected your life?

The current pandemic constrains my empirical work in the field, especially in terms of the necessary observations of daily work routines. Since we are comparing the logistics with the healthcare sector, virtually conducted interviews with various actors are hard to obtain. On a more personal level, I moved during the pandemic and started a new job, which brought its own hiccups.

What was your main research topic in the last 1-2 years before spring 2020?

Over the past 1-2 years, I have investigated how creative processes are organized in the music and pharmaceutical industries. I have examined virtual communication and the valuation of ideas. A notable result was that negative valuations are an indispensable driving force for creativity.

What are the main findings of your work; and did the results surprise you?

Simultaneous interaction through on- and offline media leads to different needs and requirements such as availability and response presence. Each communication tool implies an expected feedback time frame, i.e., direct response in a call or a physical meeting, usually a few minutes in a chat, and maybe two days for an email. Consequently, the interaction partner has a response presence. Being available, in a meeting, or absent can be conveyed via status indicators. These changes in the way we communicate can be condensed to the following phrase: “Being aware” supersedes “Being there”. However, the generation of artistic content or scientific knowledge is still surprisingly strongly anchored and embedded in local situations despite the digitalization of work.

What local situations can these be precisely, and to what extent is the digitalization of work related to COVID?

While one might expect that the digitalization allows to standardize processes to facilitate delocalized implementations, I have ascertained that this very possibility reinforces the local context, e.g., in terms of legitimacy. Despite an experiment having a rigorous protocol, its result is not independent of the local context as slight variations in equipment, staff, and knowledge networks affect the outcome. While it might be a bit extreme as an example, a result obtained in a university lab is commonly higher valued than a garage-project outcome despite the digital enablement.

COVID revealed that tasks like planning, administration, and coordination can be digitalized effectively while others can or should not. In the healthcare sector, the patient itself cannot be digitalized and the digitalization of patient care is constrained by, e.g., ethical considerations.

You have managed to hook your research into the incalculable emerging pandemic. What is your advice for postdocs that want to embrace such a challenging research topic?

My already forward-oriented research gained additional attention due to COVID-19. If I were to give advice, it would be that if you are investigating a forward-looking topic, then you should stick to it – your time will come.

What would be the one take-home message of your research?

Virtual communication should not be understood as a secondary mode of interaction, but rather as an interaction context with its very own requirements and constraints but also unique opportunities.

How does your perfect day off work look like?

My perfect day off work starts with a half-day bike tour on my own enjoying the nature on a bright day. Then, I spend some time in my hammock with a coffee before meeting friends for beers.

We would like to express our sincere thanks to Dr. Alice Melchior for supporting our new blog interview format with active participation.

Find out more about Dr. Alice Melchior and her work:

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