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Is Technology Pushing Workers Too Far?

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“Doing more with less” isn’t just for the especially frugal. It’s what many companies are requiring of employees, and they are using advanced technology to do it. But is it right?

That’s the question raised by a new piece from Mike Ramsey in HR Today, Has the Push for Productivity Gone Too Far? Writing for the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM), he includes a brief history lesson:

Manufacturers have been scrutinizing productivity levels—and examining weak links in the chain—since the first moving assembly lines began operating more than a century ago. Before that was Frederick Taylor’s system of “scientific management,” which examined the components of industrial shops to quicken workflows.

Technology to monitor employees has also been around for a while. Decades ago, security guards turned keys in “watchclocks” to verify that they made their nightly rounds. For years, drivers for delivery companies such as UPS and FedEx have been tethered to barcode scanners. Today, their vehicles are rigorously tracked to make sure they’re staying on course and on time.

And today in places like Amazon fulfillment centers, materials obtained by The Verge tell a highly mechanized picture of management and firing:

[The company has] a deeply automated tracking and termination process. “Amazon’s system tracks the rates of each individual associate’s productivity,” according to the letter, “and automatically generates any warnings or terminations regarding quality or productivity without input from supervisors.” (Amazon says supervisors are able to override the process.)

Critics see the system as a machine that only sees numbers, not people. “One of the things that we hear consistently from workers is that they are treated like robots in effect because they’re monitored and supervised by these automated systems,” [one expert] says. “They’re monitored and supervised by robots.”


© Flickr user Gwan Kho

Companies pushing their measurement too far is something we’ve covered before here on The Methodology Blog. Over a decade ago, we reported on a business that timed employee bathroom breaks. We wrote about a firm that punished team members for walking too slowly. We also covered a company that used sensors to listen to people’s tone of voice. Automated management is nothing new. And the questions are still the same.

Rules are Rules, No Matter Who or What Enforces Then

Much of the discussion around computerized systems that evaluate performance and make decisions is just about policy itself. A good example is the controversy over red light cameras. It’s illegal to run a red light, and if an officer catches us in the act, most of us will accept our fate. But if an automated system records our transgression, many will protest. The law is the same, but we feel different.

In this sense, what all of us are seeking with human judgement is for our actions to be evaluated in context. Maybe we have technically violated the policy but there are extenuating circumstances. Or, maybe we just want a second chance. If the rules are set in stone and followed to the letter, that can’t happen. It doesn’t matter it’s a computer or a person. But of course, that’s not how it seems if you’re the one in trouble.

Relying on the Humans

There aren’t easy answers as our businesses become more and more sophisticated. But one part of the puzzle comes appears in the HR Today story—in a quote from our own Robby Slaughter:

He advocates for involving employees whose lives will be changed by technology. “Otherwise,” he says, “you risk disenfranchising them and disconnecting them and creating more problems for yourself.”

If there is a way to be certain that the robots and the rules don’t endanger your business, make sure the people have a chance to lead the way. Human beings, after all, are your customers. Relying on them to help make decisions about how to run the business will produce the best results.

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