Column | Is a robot preparing your pink slip?
After I started working at a convenience market during high school, it irked me when the boss stood at the back of the store and presumed to judge my productivity solely by the rhythm of the cash register.
When I worked in a factory, my hourly production quota was at the mercy of misshapen materials and vintage machinery designed to be powered by Benjamin Franklin's kite.
So, I can understand the brouhaha that erupted when the media started circulating sensationalized stories about how Amazon and other hyper-efficient companies are using computers/robots/algorithms to monitor and "fire" employees.
To be fair to corporations, no one is being fired directly by a machine. It's just that more and more companies are keeping high-tech tabs on employees, measuring the speed and accuracy of their job performance (as well as the frequency and duration of bathroom breaks and laid-back banter) on a second-by-second basis.
The computer programs notify the supervisor and Human Resources department about the worst-performing employees' deficiencies, so living, breathing, compassionate human beings can schedule a last-ditch meeting to resolve the issues. Of course, the meeting is skewed by the fact that those living, breathing, compassionate human beings know that a higher-level computer is salivating over the chance to kick THEIR fleshy buttocks out on the pavement, so ...
Ironically, the more reams of data we have available to us, the more a mutually agreeable definition of "An honest day's work for an honest day's pay" eludes us.
Corporations are looking for more of the Puritan Work Ethic from their workers. This fits well with the Puritan Management Ethic of the stockholders. ("She made a second trip to the water fountain! She's a witch! A witch! Burn her at the stake – if it can be accomplished with no more than three motions.")
We've trapped ourselves. Consumers demand same-day delivery of ridiculously inexpensive products and workers demand ever-higher wages, but no one wants to acknowledge the need to trim lazy or incompetent workers.
Management and labor continue to live in separate worlds. When the boss says, "Please place those fun-size bags of Styrofoam peanuts on the conveyor belt for $15 an hour," the worker naturally hears, "Lift that barge, tote that bale. If you get a little drunk and land in jail, I'll know all about it from an urgent email."
Conversely, when a manager looks out over a group of workers striving for a better life, he is astounded by the number of lollygaggers, layabouts, rumor mongers, goof-offs, daydreamers, pilferers and flirtatious scalawags. ("Release the hounds! No, wait – those mongrels will demand time and a half. Must I do everything myself? GRRRR ... CHOMP ...")
Let's try to narrow the divide between labor and capital.
Management, it's not enough that the workplace makes employees THINK of Lucy and Ethel and the chocolate conveyor belt; give them half a second to exchange knowing SMILES.
Employees, consider that maybe "can recreate last night's Kimmel monologue word for word" and "has a bladder the size of an electron" are down the page a wee bit on the list of Qualities the Boss Thinks Will Contribute to The Bottom Line.
Let's come to a compromise before the micromanagement monitoring becomes so pervasive that it follows us into retirement.
"You missed the Early Bird Special and paid full price? Alexa thinks maybe we should claw back part of your pension funds ..."