Machine minders.

Employers have always wanted a productive and committed labor force, especially if it didn’t involve paying higher wages. Modern technology is supposed to improve productivity in ways that are well understood. However, technology also allows employers to measure productivity in other ways.[1] Software has been developed to track, measure, and analyze all sorts of employee actions. Today, 66 percent of American companies track employees’ internet use; 45 use key-stroke logging to track productivity; and 43 percent track e-mail. Employer-provided cell phones allow tracking through their GPS chips. In addition, computer systems connected to cash registers can track speed of customer purchase processing. UPS has fitted its trucks with a host of sensors that accomplish the same thing in measuring the delivery drivers. The information measures how hard an employee is working and, thus, their marginal value to the employer.

Beyond that, new software allows companies to engage in “sentiment-analysis” on the part of workers.[2] Companies have been using annual surveys and internal blogs to gain insight into the expressed beliefs of workers. New software purports to be able to measure the emotional content as well. (One study revealed that, in spite of the positive terms used to describe a diversity-enhancement initiative, workers felt threatened and fearful for their own jobs.) Other programs assess the salience of issues in the minds of workers.

People who value a degree of privacy might also be alarmed by the recent development of an employee badge that contains a microphone, location sensor, and accelerometer. For the moment, the company that produced the badge claims not to record conversations, but only to use the data to discover valuable patterns among workers.

All this undoubtedly spurs productivity. For example, after four years using the sensor system, UPS delivered 1.4 million packages using 1,000 fewer drivers. Using another technology, Bank of America call centers found that tightly knit groups of workers were less likely to quit and more productive on the job. The bank introduced common coffee-break times. Turnover fell by 70 percent and productivity increased by 10 percent.

It also violates a certain un-spoken assumptions about work held by many employees. Partly this has to do with how much work one should do for how much pay. “People get intimidated and they work faster,” complained one UPS driver. This isn’t really different from the “speed-up” on an assembly-line in the old days. Similarly, work-life and non-work-life are increasingly interpenetrated. Sometimes people have to take care of personal business while at work, just as they sometimes have to bring work home. They expect the employer to understand this reality. When employers complain about time use, employees resent it.

Partly this has to do with revealing employer attitudes about employees. “Right at the heart of all of this [monitoring] is trust,” confessed one management consultant. Modern human resources management talk about creating a sense of community or teamwork in the work-place is revealed to be so much drivel. Hence, Twitter has explicitly fore-sworn analyzing the e-mail of workers and focused on internal blogs (where workers can have no expectation of privacy). Then, will the information be used to cull employees who have what is seen as a bad attitude?

All this is compounded by the fact that good supervisory help is just as hard to get as is other types of employees. One supervisor told an employee that the GPS chip in her company issued cell phone allowed him to track her location 24/7. This could sound like being stalked.

[1] “The rise of workplace spying,” The Week, 10 July 2015, p. 11.

[2] Rachel King, “Companies Want to Know: How Do workers Feel?” WSJ, 14 October 2015.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s