Workplace Monitoring

It seems that every job is being changed, if not displaced, by technology nowadays.  NPR recently did a piece called "The Future of Work Looks Like a UPS Truck" which discussed UPS's use of delivery tracking technology, and the changes that have been made to the delivery drivers' work as a result.  In that organisation, what was once a largely manual job is being transformed, piece by piece, by technology and analytics.  Drivers now have mobile devices that record notes from previous deliveries; they will be warned, for example, if there is an aggressive dog at the delivery address.  

The Efficiency / Autonomy Tradeoff

According to the report, UPS knows how many times a driver reverses, how far away from their truck they are at any time, how many keystrokes are entered (reducing 1 keystroke, per driver, per day saves the company $100,000 per annum), the best route to take when delivering multiple parcels in a day (and whether the drivers deviate from that route), and how long it takes you to unlock a truck using a key, amongst other things.  Using this data, UPS can optimise work design to maximise efficiency.  An example of this is by providing proximity fobs, rather than keys, to open the door faster and shave seconds off a delivery.  Obviously there's an opportunity for UPS to make their work more efficient... but it also hints at a dystopian future where workers are constantly under surveillance, and every facet of their work (right down to which pocket they keep your pen in) is monitored, optimised, and enforced.  In that world, workers have very little autonomy.  In another recent example, a report in the Financial Times indicated that at least one US bank is monitoring the stress levels in its' employee's voices in order to optimise breaks.

Environment Scan - Neo-Taylorism ( what's this? )

Environment Scan - Neo-Taylorism (what's this?)

Workforce Monitoring as Neo-Taylorism

Frederick Taylor is considered the father of modern scientific management, and is most famous for his time and motion studies conducted in the late 1800's at steel companies including Midvale Steel and Bethlehem Steel.  These "Time and Motion" studies broke work down into its' component parts, and tried to optimise them.  Taylor went so far as to design shovels that would hold no more, and no less, than 21.5 pounds (approx 9.75 kgs) for different types of materials, as he believe that this was the optimal amount to shovel.

Taylor's work wasn't always embraced within the organisations he worked for, but it was influential - Harvard University based its' first-year curriculum on Taylor's scientific management approach from 1908, and Henry Gannt, who developed the Gannt Chart still used in project management today, was a disciple of Taylor.  Management students are still taught about Taylor today, more than a century later.  Underlying Taylor's approach, however, was a belief that entire classes of workers were not intelligent enough to be given autonomy in their work.  One of his more famous quotes on the subject:

"The man who is ... physically able to handle pig-iron and is sufficiently ... stupid to choose this for his occupation is rarely able to comprehend the science of handling pig-iron" - Frederick Winslow Taylor

No doubt Taylor would no doubt have loved to work at UPS in 2014, with all of the data available to him - in fact, this particular brand of workforce analytics, with the new types of data and tools available today, represents a type of "Neo-Taylorism".  But Taylorism's criticisms are many, varied, and legitimate - from the "control, not lead" approach to the assumption that management knows more about how work should be done than the workers themselves.

There are, essentially, two schools of thought on using Workforce Analytics for tactical work optimisation - what I've referred to above as Neo-Taylorism.  On the one hand, the supporters argue that this type of analysis elevate the workforce from menial work so that they can spend more time on pivotal skills like customer service.  The other side argues an erosion of privacy and autonomy to the point where we become de-humanised. Which side of the argument a particular worker is on, I suspect, is heavily influenced by how much they trust their employer (24% of workers don't), how the initiative is communicated, and whether the financial benefits are shared with the workforce as a whole (which they are, in UPS's case).

With the boom in interest in "big data", we're seeing more and more organisations understand that data-driven decisions are often better decisions.  Today, organisations have more data about the workforce, and more ways of analysing it, than ever before.  Smaller and cheaper sensors and data storage technologies become available all the time, and so this isn't something we're going to see diminish any time soon.  

I believe workforce analytics is a field that has enormous potential - but I worry about the lack of privacy and autonomy for workers in organisations who take a Taylorist approach.  Perhaps, too, it's telling that Bethlehem Steel, one of the companies where Taylor honed his craft, became bankrupt in 2003, and is now a management case study in the need to innovate and focus on long-term sustainability, rather than just short-term profits.  Focusing on productivity alone is no recipe for success.

What are your thoughts?

If you'd care to comment, I'd love to hear from you:

  1. When does workforce analytics cross the creepiness threshold?  Is there a good "rule of thumb" to use?
  2. Do the benefits of data analysis to optimise work outweigh the problems?
  3. Was Taylor right - do some of us require guidance in not just what to do, but exactly how to do it?
  4. How can organisations effectively balance efficiency with long-term sustainability?
  5. Are you noticing traditionally non-technical roles in your organisation using more and more technology?


  1. The Future of Work looks like a UPS Truck: NPR Podcast
  2. Are we being employed, or stalked?: An piece in the Financial Review with Steve Pell of Intrascope Analytics and Alex Hagan of Kienco on employee monitoring
  3. Workplace Surveillance, The Project.  Follow-up on Australia's The Project, discussing video surveillance in a sandwich shop, sensors in name badges, the good and bad side of workplace surveillance, and a further interview with Steve.
  4. Data Pioneers watching us work, Financial Times - including reference to measuring stress levels in employee voices
  5. How much does your boss really know about you?  A radio interview I did with George and Paul on 2UE as a followup to the Australian Financial Review piece (below):