The Financial Times tell us gives us another sighting in the all-too-familiar general story of “the Brave New World is here, and then some.”
Employers are engaged in a new Taylorism, of monitoring employee behaviors to find ways to make them more productive. But the original Taylorism took the form of time and motion studies in manufacturing settings, where the objective was to re-engineer activity at the individual worker level and across the production process to improve throughput.
The newest iteration is companies that engage in behavioral surveillance, ostensively to improve employee/customer relations and to screen new hires better.
The first half of the article is a series of success stories from consultants in the so-called “Quantified Workplace movement” (ponder that branding for a second: “movement” makes it sound like a popular groundswell, as opposed to the more accurate: “data scientists target HR departments, which have difficulty explaining what if any value they add beyond creating policy manuals and training sessions to reduce litigation risk.”). The vendors have too-cute names like Evolv and are up-front that more intrusion is better. For instance, co-founder and CEO Max Simkoff states: “Every week we figure out more things to track.” He also claims he can improve productivity by a minimum of 5% in at least 2/3 of his “jobs.” Evolv is initially focusing on the foot soldiers of the service economy, specifically “customer facing” activities such as retail and call centers.
Needless to say, the sort of case studies served up to the media are ones that look inoffensive or even helpful to the now-even-more-intensively-scrutinized workers. It’s one thing to know your company can read all your e-mails and track all your phone calls and web site visits. That falls in the category of “it’s now easier than ever for them to fire you even if it’s pretty clearly discrimination (say you got pregnant or over 60 but they can probably find some behaviors that lots of other workers engage in but they can claim merited dismissal). But now they are starting to get serious about mining all this stuff (and more!) to identify winners and losers in advance. The temp service Kelly claims to have achieved a 7% increase in efficiency (how determined, since Kelly is not the end employer?) after they had Evolv advise on their hiring policies.
Novo1, a US company that runs customer call centres and has more than 2,000 employees, identified the characteristics of its most successful call operators and hired more people like them. This cut job interviews down to 12 minutes from an hour, reduced average call time by a minute and slashed attrition by 39 per cent.
Another pioneering outfit is Sociometric Solutions, which puts sensors in name badges to discover social dynamics at work. The badges monitor how employees move around the workplace, who they talk to and in what tone of voice.
One client, Bank of America, discovered that its more productive workers were those allowed to take their breaks together, in which they let off steam and shared tips about dealing with frustrated customers.
The bank took heed and switched to collective breaks, after which performance improved 23 per cent and the amount of stress in workers’ voices fell 19 per cent.
See? Isn’t that lovely? All that listening to employee conversations led Bank of America to let workers hang out together on breaks! What a win-win!
Equipment makers Steelcase salivates at the prospect of turning furniture and buildings into listening posts….even boardrooms. I am pretty sure that the executive classes will recoil at the prospect of being watched just like the peons (and more important, outside counsel will kibosh that, since no one will want records that might conflict with official board minutes).
The story does include some cautionary notes:
Teresa Amabile, a professor and director of research at Harvard Business School, says it could be “very positive” or “very negative” depending on the existing workplace culture.
Monitoring can work if the teams, departments or whole offices using the software or devices have what she calls “a high degree of psychological safety”.
If people feel able to experiment, potentially fail and learn from those lessons, then they can be motivated by gaining a better understanding of how they spend their days.
But she warned that the technology was still in its early days and could be “too crude” an instrument to rely on. “There is definitely a danger of seeing technology as a silver bullet,” she says…
Even those who are involved in the growing industry believe there needs to be more discussion about when and how the data are used. Professor Andrew Knight from Washington University in St Louis works with data from both Evolv and Sociometric Solutions to study workplace behaviour.
But he thinks constant monitoring is a “scary image for the future” that could “remove some of the authenticity of those [workplace] relationships”.
These comments show a remarkable lack of imagination. For instance, one thing that Evolv monitors is how long it takes employees to commute to the office. You can easily see this justifying discrimination against people who live in certain neighborhoods (income or worse, de facto racial profiling) or people who have kids (as in have a longer commute by virtue of sometimes or often dropping children off on their way to work).
Similarly, a well-known productivity-killer is divorce, particularly acrimonious divorce. How about being a single mother? That’s stressful too and can be identified lots of ways: content of messages, phone call patterns. Or just having a dual income family with toddlers or young elementary school children, or children with disabilities will similarly have high odds of showing higher-than-normal extracurricular phone calls and stress levels. And do you think employers will devise benign outcomes for these overtaxed laborers, like more counseling or child care? If so, I have a bridge I’d like to sell you.
You can easily imagine surveillance using “stress in your voice” and “changes in your relationships with your peers” to justify firing people who are caring for aged parents, or having an affair, or advocating unionization.
And one also has to wonder whether these increases in productivity come with hidden costs. In the early days of consultants who advised on expense reduction and took a percentage of the savings, a widely-touted success story of ex-McKinseyite Chandrika Tandon advising Chase helped put the industry on the map. What was not widely reported, however, was that a couple of years later, Chase reversed a significant number of Tandon’s cost saving measures (and remember, she collected hard dollars for them) because they found she had cut meat out along with the fat. I suspect savvy readers can come up with other naive uses of this technology that can backfire, as well as potential abuses. But I’d really like any reader sightings as far as what the failures and mixed results from these studies look like.