Future of Work

Technology is revolutionizing the nature of the firm and the nature of work. In particular, the online space has opened up new opportunities for work, as it provides a new arena for buyers and sellers of goods and services to meet, even those who are far apart geographically. As more people get connected to the Internet, the online workplace is likely to grow even more. The aim of this body of work is to understand how this change is happening with a focus on how it affects people in the Global South. We focus in particular on understanding how marginalized groups (e.g. women, underemployed youth, etc.) are impacted, and designing policy solutions that are inclusive. More recently, we’ve been asking if and how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the world of work. Our work currently focuses on the following areas:

  1. Online Freelancing in the Emerging Asia Pacific. We conducted qualitative interviews with over 400 respondents in Sri Lanka, India, and Myanmar in 2016-17 to understand the experiences of those doing digitally mediated work, with a primary focus on cloud work. Many respondents reported the advantages of this work, including flexible work time and place, the ability to supplement existing income, and sometimes the ability to out-earn their counterparts in formal / traditional markets. However, barriers still remain, such as the ability to access payments from abroad (e.g. PayPal is unavailable in Sri Lanka), and difficulties getting bank loans since cloud workers do not have salary slips. We also conducted a quantitative nationally representative survey in Sri Lanka in 2016 with over 5500 respondents to assess awareness of online freelancing and the willingness to do such work.
  2. Women in the Platform Economy. We know from our previous qualitative work that women see online work and the flexibility it entails as a way to earn their own income while balancing childcare and other domestic responsibilities. However, many barriers remain to women’s participation in the online workplace, including gender gaps in internet connectivity. We are currently taking this work forward by qualitatively studying the experiences of female platform workers in India and Sri Lanka, collaboration with the Center for Policy Research, India, World Resources Institute, India, and the Indian Institute for Human Settlements. We aim to assess the ecosystem within which women are engaging with digital work in India and Sri Lanka and the kind of impact that online platforms can create for women’s economic empowerment in order to inform updated labour market regulation and business practices.
  3. Matching Skills and Jobs. LIRNEasia began work on developing a scalable computational mechanism to scan online Sri Lankan job boards in 2019. This work uses natural language processing (NLP) techniques to extract skill sets from job descriptions and relay findings in explainable human-readable formats. This preliminary work has led to a larger scoping study and case study, funded by the Asian Development Bank. Through this project, we will be exploring and demonstrating how online job portals can provide timely insights into labour markets. The aim is to identify shifts and trends in labour demand and skills demand, and potentially answer many other key policy questions.
  4. The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on the World of Work. The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting measures such as lockdowns and social distancing have compelled many firms and workers to explore other ways of working, including taking work processes online. Some kinds of work are more conducive to adapting to the constraints imposed by COVID-19 than others. We are planning qualitative and quantitative research in Sri Lanka to understand how the pandemic has reshaped the ways in which people work, especially for those at the bottom of the pyramid and other marginalized groups.
  5. The AfterAccess Surveys and the Future of Work. We’ve used our nationally representative AfterAccess surveys to investigate the gig economy in the Global South, including looking for ways to quantify the gig economy.
  6. Impact of Automation on the Workforce in Indian Economy (2019). Much of the fears around the automation of jobs are based on data about jobs and workers in the US and Europe. Hardly any of the predictive models have been attempted with data from Asia. Therefore LIRNEasia explored the possibility of replicating the Frey and Osborn type analysis in an Asian market, namely India. The deep dive into Indian labor data showed that while some level of analysis is possible, data from our region – even a country like India – is not detailed enough to do the kind of modelling that others have done. What this points to, is the need for better data, which governments must collect and make public.


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