Creating a Real-Time Work Force

By CIOinsight  |  Posted 11-10-2002

Creating a Real-Time Work Force

Ann Bartel, professor of human resource management at Columbia Business School, recently chatted with CIO Insight about the bumps in the road to creating a real-time work force.

CIO Insight: Some say that the push by businesses to real time could lead to job losses and also to increased labor-management difficulties, due to increased electronic monitoring.

This new approach to monitoring will make it easier for management to document substandard performance, and then make it easier for managers to make the case for discharging and laying off people for not living up to performance standards. Any increase in monitoring also will increase concerns among labor.

Given today's labor market, though, the unions are so weak that unionized workers probably won't be able to do much about monitoring. Technology has its advantages, certainly, but will it affect the quality of workers' lives to have Big Brother watching over you? It will certainly change the way workers are used to working.

Is this likely to affect all types of workers, or just certain classes of them?

It will have to be the type of job where you will, in fact, be able to monitor tasks, so clearly, factory workers will be affected. So will customer service reps and telemarketers. In the telecom industry, they've been monitoring with technology for quite some time, and managers have been monitoring how customer service reps handle service calls, such as how long they take per call, or whether they spend too much time talking to customers who don't intend to place an order.

This has become a major labor issue at places like Verizon and MCI. Monitoring is clearly going to affect the quality of a person's work experience. It's going to be hard to know that you have someone basically looking over your shoulder, someone who is able to track what you're doing every minute of the day. I think, certainly, that this would make it more unpleasant for workers. It will certainly make them feel their autonomy is being limited and that their privacy is being invaded.

Labor Backlash

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Labor Backlash?

Do you think workers might challenge this increased monitoring?

It probably hinges on the state of the economy. To the extent that workers are easily replaceable, it's going to be much more difficult for labor to successfully negotiate these new issues. If we're dealing with a tighter labor market, where it's more difficult to replace dissatisfied workers, then it would be easier for them. But I think in today's job climate, it's very, very difficult for workers to be successful on bargaining over these new issues.

Do you see increased use of information technology in the workplace as a net gain or loss for society? You certainly increase the efficiency of the firm on one level, but on the other, moving to a more monitored environment may lead to a loss of creativity and job satisfaction.

Well, it's the question of how you want to quantify that. We can certainly quantify the gain in efficiency, the gain in productivity. How we're going to quantify the loss of job satisfaction, that's a very difficult thing to do, to compare apples with oranges. It's not at all clear whether it's a gain to society.

On the one hand, efficiency will go up, but on the other you could have a lot of dissatisfied workers, you can imagine people opting to be self-employed as a way to gain some autonomy back, to move away from a Big Brother, 1984 scenario of the manager being able to monitor every breath you take. People might want to become self-employed under those circumstances, to be their own boss.

However, down the road, increased monitoring could become an accepted way of working. Think about someone who works on an assembly line where his or her productivity is measured. From the business point of view, the manager will know exactly how much that worker produces each hour, each day—and that's considered a normal way of operating, and no one gets upset about it because it comes with the territory. And those who do a good job will be credited for their work. In a monitored system, nobody can hide.

So maybe, if you're a worker, you adapt to it over time, you know the terms, and you have to accept it. To the extent that everyone in society views this as an abhorrent way of being managed, you might predict that over time, companies are going to have to pay higher wages to compensate workers for the disutility of being monitored. Maybe a job that had less monitoring would have lower wages.

This suggests that unions are going to be fairly adamant in opposing this development.

Absolutely. Unions don't want differences among their membership; they want everyone to be the same because that's what gives the union power. Once you have differences, you no longer have the unity of the union members. I think there also are issues raised in the end about workers with disabilities, and how you are able to use this type of monitoring system fairly and not run into conflicts.