In an earlier post about Amazon, I described the work of Frederick Winslow Taylor:
In 1880, Taylor would take a stopwatch to everybody’s job and break it down into steps, which would be analyzed to achieve maximum efficiency. “What Taylor did was come in and analyze the smallest pieces of work, tease them apart and break them down into fractions of a minute,” says Robert Kaniglel, author of “The One Best Way: Frederick Winslow Taylor and the Enigma of Efficiency.”
Taylorism is still driving the delivery truck at Amazon and other companies that focus on delivery, like UPS. Except now, 135 years later, managers have better tools than just a stopwatch and a measuring tape. According to Jessica Bruder at The Nation, UPS trucks are filled with sensors from bumper to bumper.
They reported when he opened the bulkhead door. When he backed up. When his foot was on the brake. When he was idling. When he buckled his safety belt. A high-resolution stream of data, including all that information and his GPS coordinates, flowed back to the UPS offices. The system is called “telematics.”
UPS is certainly not alone in tracking every move of its employees; call centers monitor keystrokes and conversations, and not just for “quality control.” Amazon famously tracks every move its employees make. Now employees are complaining, and those who are represented by unions, like the UPS drivers, are fighting back. However unions have less and less influence in America, and there's a much bigger threat: robots.
Amazon would be perfectly happy to not have any people in its warehouses complaining about how fast they have to work; no doubt all of those warehouses will be run by robots soon. The UPS director of process management tells NPR, “We’ve moved from a trucking company that has technology to basically a technology company that just happens to have trucks.” And no doubt those will be self-driving as soon as possible. Because meatware (that’s us) just isn’t as efficient as hardware and software.
It’s not just on the factory floor and old-economy companies where people get Taylorized. People working at home do too. Some companies use software that's seriously invasive. Worksnaps takes screenshots every 10 minutes, logs keyboard strokes and mouse movements, tracks which software is open and it can even watch the employee through the webcam. Other systems like Hivedesk are slightly less nosey.
Of course it doesn’t need to be so high-tech and invasive. On sister site TreeHugger years ago, I started a “virtual water cooler” on Skype and when I became editor, we used it as if we were all in the same newsroom. Everyone signed on and off, even for the shortest breaks, so it was clear who was around and who wasn't. Soon it all became second nature. Now a lot of people are using Slack in the same way.
Ultimately, the single most important factor in managing any group of people is trust. Even with improved technology, we humans have to work on that part.