Here We Go Again…from time & motion studies to surveillance

When Frederick Taylor did his “scientific method” studies of time and motion in the late 19th century, he intended to bring about higher productivity and economic efficiency. An unexpected outcome of these studies was giving workers interval breaks and better pay as incentives. Taylor himself cared less about the workers’ welfare than about how to streamline production. Scholars after Taylor tried to offer a counterbalance to the stark “scientific method” by emphasizing “human relations.” Since then, the debate between quantification and qualification in the management field has not stopped.

I think in the “either-or,” dichotomous, or, antagonistic, universe, we all end up losing a little.

In the management world, issues concerning quality always seem to struggle for attention and justification. Almost always, quantification trumps. What we can quantify, we can drive to better outcomes. But is it truly so?

If you are in a management position, would you like the ability to monitor your direct report’s movements? If you are a staff member, would you mind being recorded for your movements, interactions, and conversations?

Digital technologies have made surveillance much easier. And tracking employees just seems so tempting, especially when tracking yields “positive” effects.  In the referenced New York Times article, the two areas where surveillance has brought about better outcomes are in the restaurant industry and the “communication” aspect of bank services. Interestingly enough, while the impetus for restaurants owners to monitor workers was to prevent theft, actual theft was found to be insignificant. The unexpected “bonus” was significant revenue growth. Wait staff, feeling watched, made more sales by encouraging patrons to order more, or more expensive items. It seems that the restaurants owners’ initial suspicion was misplaced.

I use this image to counter the "eek" feeling of "keeping employees under surveillance."

I use this image to counter the “eek” feeling of “keeping employees under surveillance.”

As for communication in some of the banks that set up the monitoring system, the data suggested that by taking breaks in an environment that encouraged social interactions, such as a better break room, employees became more productive. (Once again, I worry about the introverts. Or perhaps they avoided careers in bank service communication?)

But no one seems to feel the need to monitor managers.

In the article, the author’s focus is on “privacy” of employees. I think the deeper issue is trust.

There is a range of monitoring systems, from the “crude” conventional camera recording to computer chips embedded in employees’ badges. The later “sociometric” type would record “tone of voice, posture and body language, as well as who speaks to whom for how long.” Of course, the data are used in aggregate, and no individual information is revealed. Small comfort.

One of the professors quoted in the article warns that people would view such surveillance as either bad or good, and that “the real challenge…is what is the right level and in what context it is being done.” Is this professor implicitly suggesting that surveillance is here to stay? How about these basic questions: Is surveillance necessary? and for what purposes? (not to mention the issue of cost effectiveness)   For example, do companies need to shell out consulting fees to learn that “coffee breaks” bring about better productivity? I thought that was a forgone conclusion from as long ago as Taylor’s “scientific management” studies. Most people are social learners, but do we need to spend thousands of dollars to re-learn that? I would like to see some money spent on creating comfort zones for introverts as well. Is detailed monitoring really going to help, say, sales representative to learn the art of conversation? Maybe the supervisors of these sales representatives can learn to work with people first, before resorting to computer chips to do the data collection.

Once again, let me re-emphasize that the foundation of organizations is relationships, “relations among parts and relations among relations.” And there are no shortcuts in building relationships.

Wishing you a care-free week. Till next time,


Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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