Digitalization raises surveillance at work to new levels with troubling ethical questions
For employees, age-old issues about monitoring at work are coming into a new light. It is now possible to monitor and survey employees to a degree hitherto impossible. More specifically, digital tools can provide data about performance, health, anxiety, and other issues, 24/7. For example, reports have highlighted working conditions at Amazon where employee performance is monitored and assessed continuously in real time; see for example O’Connor (2013) and Kantor and Streitfeld (2015). An editorial in the Financial Times (August 17, 2015) posits that white-collar workers at Amazon choose to work in the competitive environment it embodies in exchange for the potential monetary rewards for those who succeed or the experience that might help open other job opportunities in the labor market. Sandbu (2015b), also writing in the Financial Times, points out that the argument about being free to leave hinges on such practices not becoming the common standard elsewhere. Of course, employee monitoring has always been a feature of competitive workplaces, including banks, law firms, and other workplaces where high pay and benefits accrue to those who make the grade. Sales forces, logistics professionals, and other sales-oriented professions have a long tradition of being measured on performance, since measurement has been easy and is directly related to performance.
Digital monitoring, however, can take surveillance to a new – and potentially problematic – level. Notably, when employees wear digital devices throughout the day, employers can become privy to their levels of anxiety, sleep deprivation, and other factors that may affect performance; see for example O’Connor (2015c), Scheiber (2015) and the Economist (2015h). In an experiment, 31 employees at the firm Profusion volunteered to wear fitbits for ten days. The data generated made it possible to divide the employees into various categories (such as “busy and coping” and “irritated and unsettled”); see O’Connor (2015c). How much of this will be voluntary and what invasions of privacy are we prepared to accept? While the practices mainly come from American companies, the tools thus developed are beginning to be used in many places. In Sweden, municipalities have used the Paragå system in smart phones to detect fraud or inefficiencies; see Eriksson (2015). For countries in Europe with other traditions in law and privacy issues, the questions raised should concern everyone: employees, firms, unions, and employers’ organizations alike. The boundaries between work and leisure have become more blurred with the use of smart phones and email and digital tools are now taking these issues to another level.
The Economist (2015h). “Digital Taylorism.” The Economist. September 12.
Eriksson, Thord (2015). ”GPS-system avslöjar fusk i hemtjänsten” Dagens Samhälle. September 24.
O’Connor, Sarah (2015c). “The new frontier of staff surveillance.” Financial Times. June 9.
O’Connor, Sarah (2013). “Amazon unpacked.” Financial Times. February 8.
Kantor, Jodi and David Streitfeld (2015). “Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace.” New York Times, August 15.
Sandbu, Martin (2015b). “Free Lunch: Amazon agonies.” Financial Times. August 18.
Scheiber, Noam (2015). “A ‘kinder’ office is often sought, but rarely found.” International New York Times. 19 August.
Streitfeld, David (2015a). “Data-Crunching Is Coming to Help Your Boss Manage Your Time.” New York Times, August 17.
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