The Never-Ending Quest for Workplace Efficiency

Just the other day I was laying on my couch and generally ignoring the world. The Coronavirus forced me to quarantine in my home but I counted it all joy because I had my DVR and a Netflix account to keep me company. My agenda was pretty much set then, eat, sleep and repeat as necessary. Eventually, I caught up on all the Netflix Marvel shows, Dr. Who episodes and classic Bruce Lee films that I planned on watching since I picked them up in a garage sale. (It’s good to have goals.)

With nothing else to do, I decided to channel surf for new adventures. To my surprise, I stumbled across a new channel on my satellite listings – HR TV, a station devoted solely to content of interest to Human Resources professionals. Imagine my shock! In progress was a show called “HR News” and its topic was “The New Normal.” I watched as they discussed how rapidly the world had changed; seemingly overnight. The Coronavirus debuted, followed by social distancing and the negative effects on some remote workers who found the transition difficult. They went on to detail how civil unrest in major cities were incentivizing millennials to leave the big cities in droves and they speculated on related trends.

I watched in unblinking fascination as they cited the boom in purchasing spy software as bosses try to monitor their workers at home, not realizing the privacy issues that may erupt because of that. They gave a general nod to other forms of technology becoming more pervasive in the workplaces where workers are still interacting. For example, social-distancing bracelets that Ford workers use in their factories and how Amazon was automating recruitment out of the hands of recruiters and the increasing demand for robots in certain industries. Not all of their reporting was alarming to me; I enjoyed the new job report where they shared how new opportunities were abounding due to more adaptable and easier to program robots. So, one can expect jobs like Robot Technician and Robot Operator to become mainstream soon.

But no matter all the changes, one pursuit was constant – the never-ending quest for workplace efficiency. And as they began listing examples of ways companies were leveraging technology to improve their work outcomes I thought, “Well, who can blame companies for wanting to do more with less? We do that at Proactive Talent all the time.”

Some of the examples of workplace efficiency they cited were:

  • According to UPS, their ORION system saved them around 100 million miles per year since its inception, which translates into 10 million gallons of fuel and 100,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions. Moreover, reducing just one mile each day per driver saved the company up to $50 million annually.
  • Another example they reported on was Digital Twins which are virtual replicas of physical devices that data scientists and IT pros can use to run simulations before actual devices are built and deployed. This is trending in manufacturing, automation and construction industries.
  • What I thought was the coolest efficiency tech they shared were generative design tools. You come up with one way to build something based on certain parameters and the machine will take your one idea and come up with multiple variations of your idea. I really liked that because it could really inspire creativity.  

Although I was engrossed in this report on emerging HR technology, I felt myself holding my breath a bit when they veered into the more negative effects of workplace efficiency. I forget exactly how they explained the phenomenon, but its pretty much summed up like this, “When you treat people like machines, they don’t like it.” As an example, they talked about algorithmic management which is basically when a machine manages workers through an app. They cited companies like Uber and Lyft as prime examples. In both cases, instead of conversing with a human being for advice or an assignment, the app guides the gig workers. It’s a great arrangement from a company perspective. However, some of the workers don’t accept the business model and so they push back resulting in unionizing efforts as gig workers lobby for more pay, sick leave and other benefits not associated  with freelance work.

Over at Amazon, in its never ending quest for efficiency, a monitoring device tracks the productivity of its workers. Work too slow and you are notified to speed up your workflow. To prove that, they quoted The Seattle Times.

At the warehouse where he worked, Amazon monitored everbody’s rate through a handheld device — tracking “our every move as if we were convicts out on house arrest,” he writes.

The device carried messages to workers and recorded how quickly they were picking or packing goods. “Your rates are down this hour, please speed up,” a message might say, according to Bloodworth.

If you are slack in your progress for too long, you might be given a warning or terminated without input from a supervisor; a seamless process facilitated by automation. Amazon really, really likes the idea of being efficient to the Nth degree. To support that reporting, they cited “The Verge.”

The documents also show 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.)

Amazon workers have a different view of the company’s efficiency pursuits. Feeling like robots, they fight back which is why unionization efforts have been ongoing.

As fascinating as the news reports were, I still managed to fall asleep on the couch; which typically happens when I watch TV there. I started dreaming but as I think of it now, I think my subconscious mind was still following the reports on TV and how companies have been pursuing efficiency for decades.

2017

2016

2013

2001

And then I woke up on my living room floor because when I dream about HR technology, I toss and turn a lot. You would be surprised by how often that happens to me. In any regard, as I adjusted to the light, I could not help but ponder all the news reports I watched and the flashbacks in my dream. No doubt there will be new tools and processes invented with the claim that they will make companies more efficient. Some of the tools will deserve the hype while others will cause discord among the rank and file. How can these future companies and the leaders that will manage these technologies, make these tools acceptable for all concerned? A few ideas come to mind.

  • Have employees opt-in to the new efficiency technology. Do not force them to comply or punish them if they opt-out; especially if they have privacy concerns. That could really backfire against you in terms of your Employer Brand.
  • Clearly specify what data is collected when using these efficiency tools and narrowly define its use. This is most concerning when you are microchipping workers. For that matter, when possible, anonymize and aggregate the data for the sake of managers tempted to snoop on workers. You may want to limit who has access to the general data.
  • Employees should always have access to the personal data being collected on them from the next efficiency tool. The tool could be fallible in its data collection and thereby harm the work reputation of the employee. Said employee should have the chance to defend themselves as such tools could hamper their work performance review.
  • Put a time limit on how long the data can be stored and delete it after a predetermined time.
  • Most importantly, use data to inform your decisions but, do not forsake human judgement. No machine, no matter how well built is perfect.

If you have Satellite TV or Cable TV, it may be worth your while to check out HR TV. It is amazing the kind of information you will find there. If it’s not available in your area, sorry for your luck. If you do find it in your TV menu, I suggest the following shows:

  • The Real Recruiters of Atlanta
  • Dancing with the HR Stars
  • Friends with Benefits and Compensation
  • Boolean Bandits
  • The Walking Dead Hiring Managers

All quality shows worth a weekend binge.

Jim

FYI: This article was originally posted on the Proactive Talent blog.

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