This May, the Business and Society blog will focus on students. After a difficult year, when students have had to show extraordinary resilience, they've proven themselves to be diligent and dedicated to their learning. So, this month we'll hear from them and shine a spotlight on their work, their experiences and their ambitions.
Here Tash Johnson and Leah Townsend explore what the rise in tracking tech means for individuals and employers – they look at the arguments organisations make for implementing such data gathering, as well as the barriers to doing so. This blog was written as part of an assignment in the module People and Organisations 2 convened by Farooq Mughal.
In a data-driven world, more and more of us are turning to tracking apps to help us improve our lives. Wearable fitness devices help us do things like lose weight, get fit and sleep better. In fact, a name has been coined for this phenomenon – the ”quantified self” movement – where users strive to improve their self-knowledge through numbers. The interest in this movement is increasing, with global sales from Apple, Nike, Fitbit, etc approaching $63 billion in 2021.
Employers are also jumping on the trend, using technology to monitor workers’ behaviour, aiming to improve productivity. But are organisations at risk of doing the opposite?
What are employers tracking?
The most widespread form of corporate tracking involves monitoring emails, social media accounts, employee interaction and workspace utilisation. It provides employers with a picture of employees’ working day without the need for any explicit interaction; 50% of large corporations monitor such content.
While it would be difficult to track all types of performance and productivity, data can easily be gathered on certain types of monotonous work. This means that companies like Amazon regularly track their employees’ activities including task completion time, active hours and location, and use it to rank warehouse workers’ performance.
The promise of being ‘the most efficient’ may raise productivity, but this data is also used punitively when they identify “inefficient” employees. Amazon fires roughly 10% of its warehouse workers annually; its Baltimore plant alone fired 300 in a single year. While some may argue that this benefits shareholders in the short-term, job insecurity and relentless pressure for constant improvement can create to a toxic work environment and a stressed, unhealthy (physically and mentally) workforce. In fact, there have been numerous reports of workers avoiding bathroom breaks out of fear of lost productivity. In this sort of workplace quality (and reputation) will suffer - consider how often your Amazon box arrives battered, after being hastily thrown over the fence by a stressed and worried employee.
‘High-skilled’ roles - jobs those requiring autonomy, flexibility and extensive decision-making - are harder to quantify. However, by monitoring employee health data, including heart rate, sleep patterns and exercise levels, insights can be gained into performance and work satisfaction. By encouraging employee health and wellbeing, the organisation reduces its possible costs are sick pay and health insurance. Not to mention that healthier workers are more productive, putting in more hours.
With a large proportion of the workforce having worked at home for more than a year, organisations are asking questions about employee performance. If you can’t see your staff, how do you know that they aren’t watching Netflix all day? In this context, tracking might seem like a reasonable approach.
But evidence suggests that quantifying performance (through tracking data such as hours worked) may cause problems. The idea of ‘auto-gamification’ was explored in Ranganathan and Benson’s study of factory workers: when employees are encouraged to quantify their performance, they unintentionally transform work into a personal challenge, constantly pursuing a higher ‘score’. Just as parents struggle to pull teens away from the PlayStation, adults struggle to leave their desk.
The outcome of this is that auto-gamification leads to work addiction, with workers slipping into a ‘solitary game of “binge-working”.
In fact, UK workers who transferred to home-working during the pandemic experienced an almost 25% increase in average daily working hours! The lines between work and home life have become blurred, and people struggle to log-off, compromising mental health and relationships – and eventually, of course, productivity.
So can organisations do anything to mitigate this? Perhaps employers should disable employee accounts during certain hours to tackle the issue? But does this lessen the benefit of work flexibility that technology provides? Firms must weigh this up, finding the best balance for employees and shareholders.
The controversy of data gathering
Attitudes towards data gathering vary widely, especially by age group. Most under 40s (millennials and Gen-Z) readily accept that using their personal tech means that data will be gathered by third parties. Over 40s are far less comfortable with this; many avoid social media, for example.
Attitudes harden in the workplace. The prospect of being monitored puts people on edge, making some feel as though they’re living in the ‘Big Brother house’. Most regard it as invasion of privacy, but it also raises issue of trust between employer and employees, with the latter potentially placing themselves in a vulnerable position. Again, age affects views here - 55% of millennials would leave employers who prioritize profits over people, as tracking seems to imply.
The Amazon example evidences how employees’ data may be used against them, and how fear of not hitting targets fuels job insecurity. This can be demotivating and lead to burnout, conversely, making workers less productive. It’s no surprise that a deep-rooted stigma has developed around employee tracking, making implementation difficult without risking widespread employee dissatisfaction.
While employers may persuade younger workers, today’s older workers often resist new technology. Although nearly 75% of UK workers will be millennials by 2025, older workers hold invaluable human capital that employers risk losing. Employers must assess the trade-off between tracking employees to improve performance, and loss of performance due to loss of human capital.
Could data gathering be operationally risky?
In addition to overcoming employee suspicions of how their data may be used (only 30% of C-suite executives claim to be ‘confident’ that data will always be used responsibly), employers must also consider risk of a major data breach.
In 2014 an employee with a grudge posted on the internet the payroll details of some 10,000 Morrisons staff. Though the retailer went to the supreme court to avoid liability, by then the reputational damage was done. Indeed, the more data you hold on your staff the greater the risk if it’s released. And this risk is financial, as well as reputational - a 2018 hack of half a million records from the British Airways systems led to a £183 million fine.
What will happen next?
Recent technological developments make it easy to gather employee data, increasing temptation on organisations to try and use this information to improve productivity. Corporate aspirations to do so are likely to run ahead of what can actually be implemented.
With home working becoming the new normal, many employers have started to worry about just how much work their employees are doing. Some companies have asked themselves: Is it worth monitoring our workers? For most, probably not — monitoring can erode trust, harm job satisfaction, and increase stress.
Data gathering invites financial and reputational risk, as well as the attention of civil liberties groups and unions, and many still view it as socially unacceptable.
To progress the cause, companies need to embrace clear employee communication, and be transparent about the data’s purpose, and how it will benefit all stakeholders, notably employees. It may even be prudent to appoint an independent oversight body, not least to help improve employee perception. Additionally, they should consider the (adverse) effects of data tracking, including gamification.
Tracking is not one size fits all. With so many variables and methods, firms must assess their individual circumstances and develop a strategy accordingly.