In a drive to cut costs and improve efficiency, companies are employing an ever-increasing array of tracking and monitoring technology to see what their employees are doing at all times, according to a story in Monday's Los Angeles Times.
For companies, it makes sense: In a globalized world, anyone who doesn't cut costs could soon be out of business. But the monitoring is changing the relationship between employers and employees, further upsetting the balance of power in the workplace.
"The technology is being used to satisfy the needs of the employer, but is being leveraged against the employee," said Regina Connolly, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Internet Commerce, and an expert in "dataveillance," a term used to describe workplace monitoring. "The playing field is being tilted in favor of the industry, against the employee."
Employees have little say on how the tracking data are used; the information can be used to justify pay cuts, to pay people piecemeal, or to fire people outright. It gives employers an increasing array of data to use to justify changes in the workplace, she said.
Productive employees are not immune. Employers will know what employees are doing on the weekends, if they take long bathroom breaks, and any mistakes they make, however small.
"We are rapidly moving toward an era in which supervision and surveillance will be non-ending," said Frederick Lane, author of "The Naked Employee: How Technology Is Compromising Workplace Privacy." "It will be extraordinarily hard for employees to have any leverage even if they're quite gifted because the employer will know everything about them."
"Knowledge is power, and there's a power dynamic in the workplace," he said. "The more information an employer has, the more power he has in the employer-employee relationship."
One major retailer, for instance, started measuring its employees, only to discover its most productive workers were part-timers who had been there less than a year. It then began to focus on hiring short-term part-timers, said Ed Frauenheim, a senior editor at Workforce Magazine.
Some experts worry that monitoring will also hurt companies sales, as employees feel rushed and put less time into customer service and their interactions with customers because they want to keep up with quotas. Customers often notice when employees are monitored and pushed to go faster, said Jeffrey Stanton, a professor in the School of Information Studies at Syracuse University.
"The notion that you can prompt people to go faster and faster and still have happy customers is a myth," he said.
Some studies suggest surveillance doesn't help productivity. In a survey of two groups of telephone workers in which one group was monitored and the second wasn't, those who were monitored had higher levels of stress, anxiety and depression. They had a 27% higher occurrence of pain in the shoulders and a 21% incidence in back pain than the non-monitored group.
Surveillance can also create an atmosphere of mistrust in the workplace (One company, StealthGenie, says on its website that "the only way to gauge your employees' loyalty is by monitoring their cell phones").
When employees don't feel trusted, they're likely to be less engaged with work, which means they'll feel less committed to their employer and spend fewer hours there, said Connolly.
"The technology is being used to satisfy the needs of the employer, but is being leveraged against the employee, which creates a distrust," she said. "Literature shows us the more an individual trusts an organization, they harder they will work."
"If you have satisfied, loyal employees, if they feel it's a good company to work for, then you have a strong psychological contract. They feel they have a future with it, and they put in more time and hours."
Elizabeth Guiterrez works at a logistics company in the Inland Empire. She carries around with her a scanning device that helps her employer see how quickly she is moving boxes. Every few weeks, she goes in for a performance review, where her bosses go over her numbers. She recently was reprimanded for taking 29 minutes to move a load of boxes; the boxes were much heavier than usual, but the numbers didn't show that, she said.
"You have a lot of pressure, this leads to a lot of accidents," she said in an interview. Guiterrez says the time pressures are so intense that workers don't feel they have time to go to the bathroom. She recently had a bladder infection because she felt she couldn't go to the bathroom when she needed to, she said.
Rutgers psychologist Jack Aiello has extensively studied the effects of computer monitoring on employee performance. He's found that employees who are monitored and constantly told that they're not working fast enough have little motivation to improve their work; and that individuals being monitored have more difficulty performing moderately complex tasks than those who aren't being monitored.
Judy Sheridan Gonzalez has been a nurse for two decades. In her hospital in the Bronx, nurses now sign into work with a biometric fingerprint scanner. The union fought off an effort to make them wear RFID tracking devices. Sheridan Gonzalez dryly notes that it's nurses, not doctors or administrators, who are tracked most closely, a fact that doesn't create any warm and fuzzy feelings between nurses and their bosses.
"Years ago, you would stay in your hospital for your career, now there's no loyalty to an institution," she said. "There are cameras all over the place now and recording devices. You look up – you see these little things in the ceiling and we never know when there's a camera watching us. I never used to worry about stuff like that."
Join us for a live video chat at 1:30 p.m. Pacific with reporter Alana Semuels and Peter Cappelli, a professor of management at the Wharton School.