Funder: HuLog is supported by FWO Belgium, NSO Poland, UKRI United Kingdom, and the Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung Germany under CHANSE ERA-NET Co-fund programme, which has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Programme.

Principal Investigator: Charles Umney , Digit Co-I (Associate Professor at Leeds University Business School).

Other team members: Gabriella Alberti and Gary Graham (Associate Professors at Leeds University Business School)

The project is part of a consortium, for which the coordinator is Patrizia Zanoni (Hasselt University, Belgium). There are also PIs for Belgium (Patrizia Zanoni), Poland (Milosz Miszczynski), and Germany (Anke Hassel).

The Humans in Digital Logistics (HuLog) Collaborative Research Project (CRP) investigates the role of digital technologies in reshaping work and employment conditions in warehouses in Europe, in view of identifying guiding principles for a more human-centred and socially sustainable digital warehousing. Logistics plays a key role in the globalized economy. Leveraging digital technology, it enables the rapid, efficient and cost-effective circulation of goods. In 2018, transportation and storage services had an annual turnover of 1.62 trillion euro and accounted for 8% of the employed and 5.3% of the enterprises in the EU28. These are underestimates as e-commerce has soared and companies have increased inventories in accessible locations to mitigate the risk of global supply chain disruptions caused by international trade conflicts (e.g. China-USA, Brexit) and calamities such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Europe has a clear ambition to build the ‘Physical Internet’, a term referring to more sustainable, ‘seamless’ logistics modelled on the digital Internet, whereby physical goods are distributed through a single, global, open collaborative network enabling assets and resources to be interconnected and jointly used (ALICE,

An essential condition for building a more efficient and resilient European logistics is the improvement of the poor work and employment conditions today prevalent in this sector, across jobs such as warehouse operators, truckers, maritime operators and couriers. The technologies that ensure an as-smooth-as-possible integration of workers into logistics processes, from online purchase to goods delivery, fundamentally shape work and employment in ways that are too often harmful to workers. For instance, sophisticated algorithmic warehouse management systems optimize warehousing operations in ways that intensify work leading to high injury rates and high turnover rates of workers (of up to over 100%), causing structural labour shortages. These digital technologies further enable employers to pervasively surveil workers and dynamically benchmark their productivity against the their peers. They typically come with precarious employment terms (e.g. temporary agency work, posted work) that allow not only for maximal flexibility of the workforce to address peaks in the flow of goods, but also to continuously select them, making union activity and mobilization particularly difficult. Given the harsh work and employment conditions, the logistics workforce is disproportionately composed of racialized workers and workers with a migration background and/or other subordinated social groups in society, who are often unable to obtain better conditions precisely because of their weaker position in the labour market.

Building on the extant knowledge on the key role of digital technologies in shaping work and employment conditions in logistics, this CRP innovates by approaching technology as essential to envisioning any improvement of work and employment conditions in logistics

More specifically, HuLog investigates the key role of digital technologies in shaping work and employment conditions in warehouses across Europe in view of making them more human-centred and socially sustainable.

Theoretical approach

Each of the three key HuLog objectives is associated with a different theoretical perspective.

  • Objective 1: To gain an in-depth understanding of how digital warehouse management systems shape workers’ lived experience of warehouse work.

To achieve objective 1, we take a socio-material perspective on digital technology in warehousing. This perspective focuses on workers’ every-day social practices in engaging with technology in their work. Different from perspectives that treat technology as a given artefact within existing organizations, socio-materiality emphasizes how organizations themselves emerge through practice, or the recurrent interaction between humans and technology. Technology does not steer human behaviour by virtue of its design. Rather, it is through the social practices of its use in the here-and-nowthat structure users’ actions.

  • Objective 2: To document and theorize the role of warehouse management systems in co-shaping companies’ human resource management strategies affecting work and employment conditions.

To achieve objective 2, we take a strategic human resource management perspective to reconstruct how workforce requirements shaped by warehouse management systems drive warehouses’ human resource management strategies. Traditionally, warehouses have increasing workforce flexibility to follow goods’ fluctuations and the need to shorten ‘lead time’ by relying on human resource management practices such as temporary contracts, insourcing, the posting of workers, and new ad hoc visas for migrant workers. They have also increasingly relied on robotization, especially for higher value-added goods. Human resource management strategies are also at once shaped by the local and national context including labour market legislation, the skill profiles of workers available on the labour market, the workforce’s socio-demographic characteristics (e.g. ethnicity, migration, gender, age), labour shortages, the role of labour market intermediaries and, importantly, the degree of unionization and the nature of industrial relations. The analysis will thus focus on how warehouse management systems co-shape the firms’ human resource management strategies.

  • Objective 3:  To derive an analytical framework comprising guiding principles for envisioning policy fostering human-centred and socially sustainable digital warehousing.

To achieve objective 3, we take a more macro-level employment relations approach, which emphasizes the how work and employment conditions are shaped through relations between institutional actors. This objective responds to the need to prioritize humans in warehousing, as indicated by surveys with practitioners. We will systematically compare the in-depth insights on both work and employment conditions in warehouses gained from the fieldwork with the wide range of respondents (WP2 and WP3) and the existing literature (WP1) to discuss with key stakeholders an analytical framework including new concepts, evidence, explanations and guiding principles for policy foregrounding humans and promoting social sustainability in technology-driven warehousing.

Methodological approach

HuLog relies on a multiple-case research design including 12 in-depth cases of European warehouses,  two in each of four logistic ‘hubs’, and 12 focus groups with key institutional actors (three in each hub). Located along the east-west logistics axis running from Western Poland to Berlin-Leipzig-Halle (Germany), Limburg (Belgium), and West Yorkshire (United Kingdom), these hubs host important concentrations of warehousing. They are in four countries with among the highest logistics performance indexes in the world: Germany (1st), Belgium (6th),  the United Kingdom (8th) and Poland (33rd). Recent official harmonized national- and regional-level statistics are unfortunately not available. Nonetheless, various figures consistently indicate that logistics, including warehousing, is a rapidly growing sector in these economies in terms of number of businesses, share of GDP, and employment. Also, labour shortages are already present or expected in the coming years due to demographic trends (e.g. aging), changes in migration policies, the limited presence of women in the sector, and the negative image of the sector.

To capture the complex role of technologies in shaping work and employment in warehouses and derive an analytical framework for negotiating more human-centred and socially sustainable warehousing, we deploy a research strategy including multiple qualitative methods aligned with the specific theoretical perspective. For Objective 1 and Objective 2, the main data collection method are semi-structured interviews (N=280) with a broad variety of actors within each of the 12 warehouses across the 4 hubs. Interview data will be complemented by warehouse documentation and non-participant observation of warehousing. For Objective 3, the main data collection method are focus groups (N=12) with key institutional actors in the 4 hubs. Focus group data will be complemented by data from documentation and the interviews.

  1. To gain an in-depth understanding of how digital warehouse management systems shape workers’ lived experience of warehouse work.
  2. To document and theorize the role of warehouse management systems in co-shaping companies’ human resource management strategies affecting work and employment conditions.
  3. To derive an analytical framework comprising guiding principles for envisioning policy fostering human-centred and socially sustainable digital warehousing.
Expected impact

The results of the project will be of great value also to non-academic users. Following the HERA principles, the HuLog consortium fully commits to public engagement and knowledge exchange to maximize impact. At a time of rising awareness of the harmful impact of sophisticated optimizing technology on workers’ well-being, the HuLog consortium will support, through scientifically informed dialogue among multiple key stakeholders, revising current understandings of challenges in warehousing in ways that: 1) structurally include the well-being of all humans involved, and 2) aim at reducing the (long-term) costs of technological and business choices on the workforce and on society, increasing their sustainability. To do so, HuLog will curate the process for the emergence of practice-oriented, ‘actionable’ knowledge through recurrent interactions among all involved partners. As shown from the numerous letters of commitment of CPs, HuLog has access to an extensive network of non-academic users including companies, employers’ associations, trade unions, public and non-profit labour market intermediaries, and regional public industrial policy bodies, the academic teams. The CRP will generate scientifically grounded guiding principles to envision novel legislation (public actors from local to EU level), HRM policies and employment strategies (firms, labour market intermediaries), collective agreements at multiple levels (representatives of workers and employers) and workers’ mobilization strategies (trade unions) (cf. reference to relevance of the CRP to single CPs in letters). Starting from the proposal, HuLog will provide a forum across multiple geographical locales fostering (self-)reflection and facilitating dialogue among stakeholders towards innovative, future-oriented warehousing solutions that increase human well-being.