Global judgements and ideas.
My talk at the International Initiative for Promoting Political Economy (IIPPE) conference in Lisbon, 7 – 9 September, looked at the contemporary problem of surveillance at work. We are at the cusp of a potential swathe of violations of Article 8 in the European Convention of Human Rights which states that ‘everyone has the right to respect for her private and family life, her home and her correspondence’. Privacy is not the only possible violation of reasonable standards for working conditions. Studies show that the new world of technologized and digitalized work is populated by very stressed people who are pushed to overwork and to work faster and as a result, whose physical and mental health is at risk.
I have been working on this research with Pav Akhtar, who is the Director for Professionals and Managers for UNI Global Union, working with affiliate unions in several sectors but in particular, the information technology sector. Our research covers work in both the global north and south and covers work by professionals and non-professionals.
In principle, the influence and integration of technology in workplaces is not terribly different today from the industrial age. Efficiency and productivity gains are still usually prioritised, with the parallel requirement to maintain a level of wellbeing and health of workers akin to the Gilbreths’ interest in fatigue and rest. What is new, however, is the availability of a range of unprecedented technologies that can be used to measure, track and analyse work and workers themselves, in ways hardly imagined during Taylor’s and the Gilbreths’ lifetimes. New technologies allow intensified and intimate surveillance and monitoring in the workplace. They also allow for transformations to the role of people in production itself through mechanization, automation and digitalization of work. Even traditionally non-routine professional and clerk work is increasingly delineated into discrete piecework that can now be done by machines and artificial intelligence (Ford 2015), a contemporary reflection of Braverman’s observations in factories (1998). New technologies also, paradoxically, can intensify office work through allowing a new kind of self-management that turns everyone into an amateur timetabler or part-time accountant, self-tracker and organiser. Even in 2000, one researcher noted that ‘computers, which are meant to help [workers to] do the work more efficiently are also extremely merciless monitoring tools’ leading to conditions where ‘work rates are close to the maximum that workers can manage’ (Peaucelle 2000: 461) and lead to high turnover rates and worker tensions.
The power of tracking work becomes even more attractive to employers with the possibilities for aggregation of ‘big data’. Implicit to the use of these technologies and the large amounts of data produced, is that the type of activity and the length of time spent on activities can be inherently linked to a qualitative judgement about a worker’s performance, information that may be used in appraisals. Intimate performance dashboards provided by most EPM technologies incorporate contextual information obtained from tracking devices such as levels of physical activity, level of stress, or presence/absence scores. The data itself is seen as the indicator of value. But, as pointed out by Angrave et al (2016, 7): ‘the process of modelling and creating dashboards and traffic lights is not value neutral but depends on dominant paradigms and perspectives within accounting and operations management, which themselves reflect ideology, politics and power’.
These practices are rapidly superseding other forms of management method as data produced is seen in itself to be a reliable indicator of productivity. New EPM then is very different from traditional methods and can have very negative consequences for employees (Jeske and Santuzzi 2015). Reliance on metrics from tracking devices potentially dehumanises employees who are reduced to a collection of performance bites. This could result in biased performance evaluations, pressures for increased work/work intensification, reduction of autonomy (Bhave 2014) (linked to privacy concerns), reduction of commitment and job satisfaction and perceived intensified control over individuals’ work (Jeske and Santuzzi 2015). EPM has the very real potential for uses of psychological bullying and employees are concerned about the possibilities for workplace control on the basis of what can be considered new surveillance methods (Rosenblat et al 2014; Ball and Margulis 2011).
If you would like to know more abour our research please contact me at pvm.doc at gmail.com