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Employee Monitoring: Antithetical To Productivity

Just finished reading an article on today’s Globe and Mail website about how “big brother” technology—e.g. technology-based monitoring devices, in this case, biometric scanners—are winding there way into the workplace. In a nutshell, the article is largely about how a handful of employers—the article cites a McDonald’s on the Manitoba tundra, and a fish processing plant (an industry known for its cutting-edge labor practices) in British Columbia—are utilizing biometric scanners to determine a form of souped-up time clock. The rationale for utilizing such high-tech methods to ensure employees are checking in and out on time is succinctly explained by the owner of the fish-processing plant, Montgomery Burns…er, John Nordmann: “
“If you want to control a whole bunch of people, it's the only way to go," he says. His 50 employees would often "buddy-punch," meaning that they would punch the time clock for people who had not shown up. "They're typical workers," Mr. Nordmann said. "It's not nice work. You have a lot of turnover. You have them one week, and the next week they're gone. You can't tell the faces any more."
What we found interesting about the Globe and Mail article is how explicit it is on the reasons why firms adopt monitoring tools (profit maximization), in addition to inadvertently revealing the limitations of such strategies. In this case, the fish-processing firm is trying to ensure that their employees produce a full 8 hours worth of fish guts, and isn’t taking a longer lunch than necessary, a strategy that the firm believes will ultimately raise its profits by maximizing the amount of fish processed per employee. Although the fish processing co happens to be in a more lurid industry, its goals are no different than say, a larger Fortune 500 firm who installs, say, Internet or email monitoring software to ensure that employees aren’t browsing the web idly during down-time.

Here’s the catch, however: while we’d agree that some type of monitoring system is usually required in a large workplace (to clarify: we don’t have a problem with timesheets, but we think the idea of biometric scanners is pretty wack), ultimately, we’d argue that the results of the more big-brotherish monitoring will largely be counterproductive to the firm’s stated goals of increasing profits.

First, such intrusive devices will probably have the opposite effect of what the fish-processor, or the Fortune 500 company wants, and may actually lower productivity by fostering resentment among employees. (Who really wants to work for an employer that spies on you?) Secondly, and perhaps more importantly: such devices tend to address the symptoms of a problem--lower productivity and profits—rather than the root cause of that problem. Note that the fishmonger quoted above talks about the fact that the work in his plant isn’t nice, and has “lots of turnover.” Turnover, of course, has significant costs associated with it: hiring costs (want ads in the case of a fish plant, recruiting trips to top-tier schools in the case of a Fortune 500, etc), training costs, and in addition to the cost of losing an experienced employee (who we’d guess would be able to gut a fish more quickly than a newer employee). In other words, one possible strategy might be to improve the culture, training and processes at the fish plant to boost productivity and profits, rather than subjecting the workers to Orwellian scrutiny.

Of course, the obvious counter-argument to improving the culture or work environment and lowering turnover at, say a fish plant or a McDonald’s is that the work will always suck and you’ll always have a high turnover. There’s a degree of truth to this argument, but that doesn’t mean that at the very least, a fish plant or other firm can’t at least lower their turnover—and therefore, their costs—by thinking a little bit more creatively about the shape of their firm’s culture, motivational tools, and structure. To draw an analogy to another industry that features high-turnover, and is about as sexy as fish-processing—welding—a welding firm by the name of Lincoln Electric was able to boast tremendous profits (at the firm and the employee level) by designing a piece-labor based performance scheme, and deliver consistently high quality products. By recruiting the right type of people (e.g. people who were highly competitive, and would fit in with the culture at the firm), and maintaining a clear and transparent organization (management and workers had access to one another’s salaries, and the companies books, which ensured a level of fairness throughout the organization, and also functioned to motivate employees by showing them how much they could receive if they performed at the level of a highly-compensated employees), Lincoln Electric—and crucially, its employees—were able to thrive for a good thirty years. Until it embarked on a misguided acquisition strategy outside the US in the early 1990s, several Lincoln Electric welders were compensated almost as well as consultants and lawyers (upwards of $150K in 1980 dollars).

In conclusion, we’d have to say that far from ameliorating low productivity at a firm, such creepy surveillance tools like biometric scanners hinder it. In short, the problem at firms like the fish processor discussed above isn’t so much employees underworking—it’s human nature to slack off now and then. Rather, it’s a shortage of managers with creative approaches to motivating people, and designing the culture and processes that motivates people to over-perform, even in a decidedly unsexy industry.

P.S. Full disclosure about reading the Globe and Mail: it turns out I'm an expatriate Canadian, and despite the fact that I've managed to escape the barren socialist wastes of my homeland for the barren midwestern wastes of Chicago, I still harbor a secret affection for the Globe and Mail's earnest brand of journalism.

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Comments

I'm absolutely amazed at the biometrics being used in the fish-gut factory while I have access to thousands of gigabytes of empty fiber optic capacity at my job with absolutely no supervision whatsoever.

In fact, a former fellow employee was running several, shall we say - indecent - web sites through this excess capacity for over a year without even being questioned.

Amazing...

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This reminds me of the moivie Office Space. The office worker says that he works just hard enough not to get fired. In casual settings without high turnovers, this would definitely make people decrease their productivity.

There are alos necklace devices that people in a building can where to not only locate them but to get a live map of them and even the direction they are facing.

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