Watchers on the Wall – The Costs and Benefits of Workplace Surveillance Tech

Is increased surveillance an appropriate method for increasing worker productivity? At what point can corporate investments begin to cut into productivity?

There have been a collection of developments in workplace surveillance technology and methods that have caught the eye of worker’s rights groups. Recently, Amazon has developed a patent for surveillance band for warehouse workers that would monitor their arm movements to record inefficiencies. Whole Foods has introduced a new inventory management system that scores and ranks employees based on re-stocking efficiency. UPS has implanted sensors in delivery trucks to monitor exactly how long workers take to deliver packages to root out possible ‘wasted’ time. A tech company called Steelcase is promoting facial recognition technology meant to monitor and record workers’ moods.

There have marked benefits to workplace surveillance, expected to be a nearly $2 billion dollar industry by 2025, of great interest to multi-million dollar companies. For example, one tech company found coders who ate at 12-person tables performed 10% better than their counterparts who ate at 4-person tables due to increased information sharing. Mass savings have been made by taking note of unproductive meetings, clamping down on employees spending too much time on leisure sites, and optimizing scheduling and work patterns.

But, there is a risk that tech can go too far. There has been an uptick in the monitoring of workers’ emails, phone calls, and in-office interaction, searching for key words and ‘unproductive’ activity. Even the length and number of bathroom breaks are being recorded in some workplaces. The data accrued amalgamates into “People Analytics” to be used for reward and punishment within a company. All in the name of cutting down on waste and increased productivity. But, the reality is that people have a breaking point and continued possible overreach could eventually reach that breakage. The state of being under constant surveillance is a stressful one, we all know the feeling of the teacher or your boss watching you work over your shoulder. How your typing, your reasoning, etc. all begin to break down, even if only slightly. If workplace surveillance continues to grow, the stresses of daily work will increase, especially if poor performance or poor mood can translate to very real reprimands or firing. Humans are imperfect beings and workers, that is our nature, but the introduction of new surveillance technology promotes a rising disdain for this reality. A sense of need for surveillance of one’s workers also implies a distinct lack of trust in workers, seeking to increase management’s power over workers rather than come to a mutually beneficial relationship. Rather than increased productivity, the rising pervasiveness and level of penetration of surveillance, in some reports from Whole Foods, is creating a hostile work environment that pushes people to tears.

A hostile work environment will certainly cut into any gains made from workplace monitoring and micro-management; increased stress will lead to more turnover which will increase the costs of the hiring and training processes ultimately decreasing the number of experienced professionals on hand, in seeking to escape a hostile environment more sick days will be taken lowering thereby productivity, and the possible legal complications that can arise in the form of invasion of privacy and harassment complaints are a very real possibility. Where exactly the line between productivity enhancer and overbearing overseer will be found will need to be a regular question among company managers and executives, and it will need to include workers into the conversation as well in order to effectively navigate these new developments.

Sources Used:

  1. Sheng, Ellen. “Employee Privacy in the US is at Stake as Corporate Surveillance Technology Monitors Workers’ Every Move”, Updated April 15, 2019.
  2. Benson, Thor. “From Whole Foods to Amazon, Invasive Technology Controlling Workers is More Dystopian than You Think”, In These Updated Feb. 21, 2018.
  3. Belton, Padraig. “How Does it Feel to be Watched at Work All the Time?”, Updated April 12, 2019.
  4. Slavícek, Daniel. “Surveillance and the Workplace”, Central European Business Review Vol. 1 Iss. 3 2012.

About Sean Wong-Westbrooke

Graduating IPE Major and Economics Minor with a passion for the unexpected ways economics factors into our lives and its relations with the politics of power. I like to write about stories that make me smile, shake my head, or rile me up.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *