You’re Being Watched

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Employers have a new tool in the struggle with employees over workplace power: constant monitoring.
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In the back and forth over workplace power, American employers have been getting the better of employees for the past few decades.
Companies have been getting bigger, giving them greater ability to set prices and wages. Labor unions have been shrinking, leaving workers with less ability to negotiate for raises. And court rulings, especially from the Supreme Court, have tended to side with companies over workers or regulators.
You can see these trends in the macroeconomic data. The share of the economy’s output that flows to corporate profits has almost doubled since the mid-1970s, while the share flowing to workers’ compensation has fallen. Or consider this chart:
Stock prices
20 times as high as 1947
15
10
5
Median family income
1947
1960
1980
2000
2020
Stock prices
20 times as high as 1947
15
10
5
Median family income
1947
1960
1980
2000
2020
Notes: Data is adjusted for inflation. Numbersfor 1947 are set to one
Sources: Refinitiv; U.S. Census Bureau; Bureau of Labor Statistics
By The New York Times
As you can see, stock prices and family incomes tracked each other somewhat closely in the decades after World War II — but no longer do.
The Times has just published a story that examines the latest manifestation of companies having the upper hand on workers. The story, by Jodi Kantor and Arya Sundaram, is called “The Rise of the Worker Productivity Score,” and it’s the result of a monthslong investigation. It describes technology-based employee monitoring that often has a Big Brother quality, tracking workers’ keystrokes and more.
Jodi and Arya write:
In lower-paying jobs, the monitoring is already ubiquitous: not just at Amazon, where the second-by-second measurements became notorious, but also for Kroger cashiers, UPS drivers and millions of others.
Now digital productivity monitoring is also spreading among white-collar jobs and roles that require graduate degrees. Many employees, whether working remotely or in person, are subject to trackers, scores, “idle” buttons, or just quiet, constantly accumulating records.
Employees at UnitedHealth Group can lose out on raises or bonuses if they have low keyboard activity. Some radiologists have scoreboards on their computer screens that compare their “inactivity” time with that of colleagues. In New York, the transit system has told some employees that they can work remotely one day a week if they agree to full-time monitoring.
The trend began before the pandemic, and the rise of at-home white-collar work over the past two years has intensified it. “If we’re going to give up on bringing people back to the office, we’re not going to give up on managing productivity,” said Paul Wartenberg, who installs monitoring systems for companies.
But even many in-person jobs now include productivity tabulations. One section of Jodi and Arya’s story describes the frustration of hospice chaplains who receive “productivity points” based partly on how many terminally ill patients they saw in a day.
“This is going to sound terrible,” one chaplain said, “but every now and again I would do what I thought of as ‘spiritual care drive-bys’” to rack up points. If a patient was sleeping, “I could just talk to the nurse and say, ‘Are there any concerns?’ It counted as a visit because I laid eyes.”
Trying to get the most out of workers is nothing new. And some form of accountability is crucial to an organization’s success. But minute-to-minute tracking of employee behavior, often using crude metrics, is a more aggressive form of accountability than has been historically normal.
“This is such an intimate form of control, which is part of why it took months of reporting to see,” Jodi told me. “To be clear, some workers really are derelict. But for many others, this is about what happens when you need to grab 10 minutes to clear your head, or deal with a kid interruption, or take a couple of extra minutes in the bathroom.”
In some cases, the monitoring systems may backfire, and the story documents how they can be inaccurate. Often, though, they can also contain accurate information about how an employee is performing from one minute to the next. And in doing so, they will further tilt the balance of workplace power away from workers and toward employers.
The growing mismatch also helps explain another trend: the increasing interest in labor unions among some workers, after decades of decline. Companies, not surprisingly, are pushing back.
For more: If you read the full story, you will get a sense for what it feels like to be tracked, thanks to a design by my colleagues Aliza Aufrichtig and Rumsey Taylor.
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Matthew Cullen, Claire Moses, Ian Prasad Philbrick, Tom Wright-Piersanti and Ashley Wu contributed to The Morning. You can reach the team at themorning@nytimes.com.
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