Becoming a Robot

Your employer has a secret fantasy: they wish you were a robot. But what if a robot can’t do your job right now? Then expect your employer to use software tools and techniques to prod you to behave more like a robot and less like a human.

Your employer has a secret fantasy: they wish you were a robot. Why? Because robots are reliable employees. They work without bio breaks and need virtually no downtime. Robots don’t seek opportunities to foster personal relationships with colleagues. Robots don’t call in sick unexpectedly. Robots don’t have childcare emergencies. Robots don’t create HR issues. Robots don’t have emotions or sensitivities or prior experiences or health conditions that need to be accommodated.

Robots are easy.

Workplace Surveillance

But what if a robot can’t do your job right now? Then expect your employer to use software tools and techniques to prod you to behave more like a robot and less like a human. A case in point is the variety of productivity software that is being adopted by employers in the name of “transparency,” “fairness,” and “balancing the workload” among employees. This surveillance software allows the employer to monitor the employee minute-by-minute, checking for moments of inactivity or distraction. Then, the software provides the data to support employer decisions to cut employee compensation (or employment) based on inactivity or distraction.

According to The New York Times, eight of the top 10 US companies (by number of employees) use some form of “individual employee productivity monitoring” software. And this trend is likely to spread to smaller organizations.

Manager Distrust

Given that so many managers are inherently distrustful of their subordinates, it’s not surprising that these managers rushed to adopt surveillance software during lockdown and the subsequent persistence of work from home. And it should not be surprising that they use this software to monitor employees in the office as well. Why not surprising? Because it really isn’t about fairness or balancing the workload. It’s about extracting the maximum value possible from each employee — regardless of their humanity or situation.

Consequences of Surveillance

And what happens when this software is unleashed on a workforce without a healthy measure of decency or humanity? What happens when “digital engagement” is more highly prized than human engagement? A recent New York Times article, The Rise of the Worker Productivity Score (14 August 2022), documents some of the problems:

  • pressure to reduce bathroom breaks or other bio breaks
  • pressure to stop taking time away from the computer to simply THINK about the problem you have been asked to solve
  • pressure to avoid manual work — even if necessary to complete your work
  • pressure to reduce time spent counseling or mentoring
  • pressure to minimize time spent discussing anything with colleagues — whether work-related or not
  • pressure on hospice chaplains to earn “productivity points” rather than to provide the deeply human (and time-consuming) spiritual care needed at the end of life.

That’s right. Productivity pressure now is applied to how we die.

Productivity vs Slavery

Caitlin C. Rosenthal explores how this overbearing micromanagement and hyper-focus by employers on individual worker productivity are relics from America’s slaveholding days. (See The Messy Link Between Slave Owners and Modern Management.) Plantation owners created increasingly sophisticated methods of calculating the productivity of each slave, as well as ways of squeezing additional value out of those slaves. In some cases, it was by cutting costs (e.g., limiting food) and, in other cases, driving them to work past their physical breaking point.

Meanwhile, Cal Newport has pointed out that the parallel push by individuals for personal productivity is their desperate response to the undeniable fact that they have more work to do than can be completed within regular business hours. So they drive themselves to eliminate the slack in their days and then complete the remaining work during their so-called personal time. This uncompensated after-hours labor results in great costs for the employee and great value for the employer. So it persists.

Worker productivity scores are almost entirely for the benefit of the employer, not the employee. Any issues an employee may have with unfair workloads are really issues with ineffective management. Any issues an employer may have with distrusting employees are really issues about poor hiring practices and ineffective management. However, increasing intrusive surveillance will not transform bad managers into good ones. The better approach is more straightforward:

  • invest in your people so they require less management, AND
  • train your managers to be primarily leaders and coaches rather than traffic cops

Above all, realize that the current drive to extract maximum value from employees is profoundly unfair. It effectively subsidizes the employer at the expense of the employees who can afford it the least.

Additional Resources:

  • “The Daily: The Rise of Workplace Surveillance”, The New York Times, 24 August 2022

[Photo Credit: Possessed Photography

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