Monitoring in the workplace can hurt us more than it helps

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You can’t fault Amazon’s timing. Amid a global pandemic, the online retailer has launched a new workplace monitoring tool that could help slow the spread of Covid. Called AWS Panorama, it uses computer vision technology to analyze images from security cameras in the workplace. It can detect when employees violate social distancing rules, for example.

Amazon, which plans to sell the tool to other employers, says it can improve workplace safety in other ways as well. “Are people walking in spaces where they shouldn’t be? Is there an oil spill? Don’t they wear helmets? These are real world issues, ”said a senior executive at the FT.

It’s easy to see how technology could help in the fight against Covid-19, as workplaces are a major source of transmission. This could reveal pinch points in factories where social distancing is not possible, for example, which could prompt companies to rethink work processes. But, like any tool, the results will depend on the people who use it.

Having read numerous corporate safety incident reports over the years, I am struck by the frequency with which CCTV footage is used to blame the injured worker. In a recent example from a British meat factory (an industry where work pressures are often intense), a man broke his hand while running to fetch a metal plate. “It’s a behavioral safety issue [because he shouldn’t have run] and he will be sanctioned on his return, ”the company wrote in the report to the UK health and safety regulator. There was no mention of why he felt the need to run in the first place.

Against this backdrop, it’s not hard to imagine a future scenario where workers are accused of contracting Covid-19, perhaps with implications for their sick pay, by employers unwilling to take into account. their own role and responsibilities.

There is also the possibility of mission creep. A testimonial on guitar maker Fender’s AWS Panorama website was enthusiastic: “We can track the time it takes for an associate to complete each task in assembling a guitar so that we can optimize performance. efficiency and track key metrics. ” The comment has now been removed from the site.

Many employers are studying how to use technology monitoring to boost productivity and measure performance. In 2018, research firm Gartner surveyed 239 large companies and found that more than half used non-traditional surveillance techniques, up from 30% in 2015. Gartner defines surveillance as things like “text analysis emails and social media posts, scanning who meets who, gathering biometric data and understanding how employees use their workspace ”.

Walmart, the US retailer, has filed a patent for a system of sound sensors placed near cashiers that could “determine a measure of employee performance based on audio data.” In the white collar world, there are many companies that sell software that allows employers to monitor what workers are doing on their computers. Time Doctor, for example, will take regular screenshots of each employee’s screen, measure their breaks, and nudge if they get lost on non-work-related sites. Supervisors receive dashboards that show “who’s a superstar and who’s slacking off.”

But you don’t have to be a slacker to shrink from the idea of ​​constant surveillance. Humans are hardwired to feel uncomfortable being watched all the time, especially when under pressure to achieve stretching goals. “It scares me, physically and mentally exhausted,” Hibaq Mohamed, an Amazon warehouse worker, told researchers at the Open Markets Institute of Workplace Surveillance.

A body of research suggests that jobs that combine high demands (concentration requirements, workload, time pressure) and low control (discretion to make decisions and plan own work) are ruinous to human health. Our metabolic, cardiovascular, and neuroendocrine systems produce short-term responses to stressful situations, but when stress is chronic, it can damage our bodies or cause us to heal ourselves. A study in the United States, published last year, found that people in high-demand jobs with low control were more likely to die than people in high-demand jobs with high control.

Workplace surveillance should be subject to regulatory oversight and ideally collective bargaining, as individuals will be in a better position to negotiate the details en masse. It would be a disheartening irony if the technology introduced to protect our health in a pandemic made us sicker in the end.

sarah.o’[email protected]

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