The Quantified Worker
In the first pages of The Persuaders, Packard marvels at the ‘large-scale efforts’ in the 1950s that were being made, with what he saw as ‘impressive success’, to ‘channel our unthinking habits’, linking this channelling to purchasing decisions and our consumer habits. Marketing experts had begun to use concepts from psychiatry and methods of social sciences to identify how marketing was beginning a trek into the hidden self, or what happens below, behind and beneath people’s levels of awareness. Attempts to penetrate this level of sub/unconsciousness for specific purposes of behaviour change was labelled ‘the depth approach’. This background to the ‘nudge’ thesis reflects a commitment to bias people in ways that could easily be seen as ‘creepy’, which was the theme for the Design Culture Salon Series Four where I was invited to speak as part of an impressive panel of researchers and practitioners who are interested in design for behaviour change which is a compelling instrument of design practice in politics, marketing, transport and urban planning.
I am interested in methods to effect behaviour in workplaces which have an extensive history from scientific management to a current trend to quantify work in new and inventive ways. So I am looking at new sensory technologies that are introduced into workplaces as they allow people to get to know aspects of themselves that are not otherwise knowable, or the autonomic self, where aspects of the physiological self are revealed via data accumulation gathered by sensory devices such as Fit Bits, Jawbone Up and other self-tracking devices worn directly on bodies or software embedded into work terminals linked to smaller screen applications. Our recent publication in New Media & Society is entitled ‘The Quantified Self at Work: What Counts in the Neoliberal Workplace’.
Given 13 million devices are predicted to be introduced into workplaces by 2019 by ABI research, and 10,000 devices have been implemented in 2014, we need to think about what types of behaviour change are being encouraged. Devices are often part of health and wellbeing initiatives in white collar workplaces and in the USA are used for reduced health insurance premiums and even workplace discounts such as at Whole Foods. However the implications of bringing corporealised data into appraisals and the possibilities of intensified workplace monitoring are very real. The reduction of the need for staff on the basis of data accumulation in these ways has already been evident in the use of armband terminals in warehouse work at Tesco.
The company I am researching as part of my BA/Leverhulme funded project I have called ‘Agility, Work and the Quantified Self’, is carrying out an experiment with a group of employees working at the Colliers’ Rotterdam offices. Employees have volunteered to be involved in a study that gathers data about the steps they have taken, their heartrates and the data from daily lifelogs where each employee rates their feelings of stress and personally perceived productivity.
I am also contracted by Routledge to write the book I have entitled The Quantified Self at Work and I am now writing the history of workplace performance studies. At the beginning of the 1900s two separate industrialists were devising schemes to understand workplace productivity as linked to human behaviour. Frank Gilbreth, upon entering the construction industry, was intrigued to discover that every bricklayer went about laying bricks with a different set of motions. Gilbreth asked so many questions about this whilst serving as an apprentice that he was often taken off site for other work, but he was setting out upon The Quest of the One Best Way. Looking at micromotions, using a series of technological devices including a spring driven camera, an electric motor-driven camera and a michrochronometer, Gilbreth looked for the best way to lay bricks that would lead the least fatigue. His research soon became known as motion and fatigue studies. Gilbreth also measured workers’ heart rates using a stethoscope and stopwatch, a foreshadowing of the heartrate measures we are seeing also in the construction industry as a risk aversion strategy.
Simultaneously, but unknown to Gilbreth in the early days, Frederick W. Taylor started working at Midvale Steel Company. As general foreman, Taylor quickly became convinced that the greatest obstacle to cooperation between workmen and management is the ‘ignorance of management as to what really constitutes a proper day’s work for a workman’ (Taylor 1929). He asked the plant to invest in research to identify the ‘fraction of horse-power, or foot-pounds of work that one first-class man could reasonable perform in one day’ (ibid). He selected two strong, able-bodied men and carried out experiments for several years to identify exactly how much work was needed to carry out specific tasks.
While Taylor’s work was similar to Gilbreth’s, he focussed on time and measure and prioritised efficiency and productivity. Taylor quickly became an internationally respected specialist on such matters and his talks and consultancy were in high demand. Gilbreth was invited to one of the several-hour lectures Taylor held in his home in the 1920s and introduced the concept of motion to Taylor, leading to collaborations soon known as time and motion studies.
However, in the combining of these concepts and methods for workplace behaviour change, Taylor’s consultancy often directly led to rationalisation of workplaces, meaning workers were fired or redeployed. Taylor saw this as very positive because many of the jobs he removed were dirty, dark and dangerous jobs and meant people should have possibilities to take up better positions (though this of course was not what always happened in practice).
Whereas, Gilbreth emphasised the necessity for rest and fatigue avoidance, implying that one person may indeed want to continue to work in the same job rather than risk job loss. The differences perhaps lie in the fact that Gilbreth worked in a unionised industry but Taylor did not.
This background in time and motion is significant for my research on the quantified self at work because desired behaviour is pinned to specific desired outcomes. Companies now considering incorporating sensory devices into workplace design should think carefully about how any type of technological intervention is not neutral and is likely to have significant impacts, whether or not they are designed as such. For this reason it is important to be clear to employees why technologies are being introduced, what kinds of outcomes are sought and for what reason, whether behaviour change is sought, or something else that may indeed fall somewhere along a chart of ‘creepy’.
This is the talk that I was invited to deliver at the V&A Design Culture Salon ‘Is designing for behaviour change ‘creepy’?’ 20th November 2015.
Chair: Dr Dan Lockton, Research Tutor, Innovation Design Engineering, RCA
Dr Jessica Pykett, Senior Lecturer in Human Geography, University of Birmingham
Professor Peter John, Professor of Political Science and Public Policy, UCL
Dr Phoebe Moore, Senior Lecturer, Department of Law and Politics, Middlesex University
Dr Simon Blyth, Founder of Actant design research consultancy
Dr Alison Powell, Assistant Professor, Department of Media and Communication, LSE