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Professor Lynn Dombrowski and Professor Davide Bolchini

$494,286 NSF grant to improve work compensation technologies

September 12, 2017

A $494,286 National Science Foundation research grant awarded to Professors Lynn Dombrowski and Davide Bolchini at the Indiana University School of Informatics and Computing at IUPUI will enable worker-centered design of workplace information systems and applications—improving transparency, collaboration, and the accuracy of compensation in traditionally low-wage industries.

An estimated 40 million American workers are employed in low-wage occupations such as farm work, custodial work, child care, and restaurant services. The research grant, Designing Collaborative and Transparent Work Information Systems, will address how the design of workers’ time reporting systems and other technologies can decrease long-standing problems surrounding wage discrepancies and compensation labor laws in these environments.

It is a critical area affecting more than 10% of the workforce. Yet workplace information systems have not been explored from the perspectives of low-wage workers and their managers. “Low-wage workers have quite a bit of experience and interaction with technology. However, they are not part of the design processes for the technologies that impact them,” says Dombrowski, assistant professor of human-computer interaction and principal investigator for the three-year research study.

“We are excited about this new research project funded by the highly-competitive NSF Cyber Human System program, and I’m very proud of Dr. Dombrowski for her role as principal investigator,” says Bolchini, co-PI on the grant, and associate professor and chair of the Department of Human-Centered Computing. “This research is an example of how cutting-edge design research methods in human-centered computing explore and help address difficult problems of important societal relevance. Where market forces are not yet ready or willing to go, it’s our role as researchers to dive deeper.”

In a pilot study, Dombrowski found that approximately 75% of low-wage workers have some system of documenting their time. But most of these systems are either personal documentation methods or company systems that don’t accurately record employee work histories and performance. As a result, lost wages and benefits plague employees in these industries, and employers often face costly wage-theft lawsuits.

“We understand that people may be unaware of what their legal rights are, and managers may be unaware of what their legal obligations are,” Dombrowski says. “We can build tools that help everyone understand the potential violations.” Human-centered design of workplace systems can improve communication, understanding, accountability, and equitability across the board, she says. “Technology has provided us the opportunity to rethink what we understand about our working relationships, allowing us to design systems that are beneficial for all.”

Dombrowski, Bolchini, and the research team will draw on workers’ real-life experiences, which include how well workers and their managers understand compensation and benefits laws. The team will design new technologies that address these issues—and ultimately serve as models for workplace compensation technologies across many industries.

“Often, when we think about technological innovation, we think about technologies arising from Silicon Valley, which are focused on people who have resources,” Dombrowski says. “Technological innovations for low-wage workplaces address problems that matter, versus addressing problems make someone’s life a little bit better. This is a space where we can drastically improve people’s ability to work together toward happier, healthier working lives and businesses.”

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