New workplace technology is allowing white-collar jobs to be tracked, tweaked and managed using an increasingly wide range of tools to monitor workers’ efforts.
A New York Times article over the weekend portrayed Amazon’s work culture as “bruising” and “Darwinian,” in part, because of the way it uses data to manage its staff. The article depicted a work culture where staffers are under constant pressure to deliver strong results on a wide variety of detailed metrics the company monitors in real time — such as what gets abandoned in peoples’ shopping carts and what videos people stream — and encouraged to report praise or criticism about colleagues to management to add to more data about workers’ performance.
A new generation of workplace technology is allowing white-collar jobs to be tracked, tweaked and managed in ways that were difficult even a few years ago. Employers of all types — old-line manufacturers, nonprofits, universities, digital startups and retailers — are using an increasingly wide range of tools to monitor workers’ efforts, help them focus, cheer them on and just make sure they show up on time.
One way employees are pushed to work harder is tethering them to the office outside of normal business hours. Nearly a third of workers in a Gallup poll last year said they were expected to “check email and stay in touch” when they were not working.
“People in sales are continually measured and always know where they stand. Now this is happening in the rest of the white-collar workforce,” said Paul Hamerman, a workplace technology analyst with Forrester Research. “Done properly, it will increase engagement. Done in the wrong way, employees will feel pressured or micromanaged.”
Myrna Arias, a Southern California saleswoman for Intermex, a money-transfer company based in Miami, was required to download an app on her cellphone that tracked her whereabouts 24 hours a day, she claims in a lawsuit now pending in federal court. Arias’ suit quotes her manager as saying, perhaps jokingly, that he knew how fast she was driving at all times.
“Ms. Arias believed it was akin to wearing a felon’s ankle bracelet,” said her lawyer, Gail Glick. She deleted the app and was fired. Her suit, which accuses Intermex of invasion of privacy and wrongful termination, seeks $500,000 in lost wages.
The data-driven approach can seem “Big Brother-ish,” and relying strictly on numbers can lead to the perception of a coldhearted workplace. “It’s easy to get so hung up on statistics that you miss the value of what that individual brings to the table in terms of personality, connectivity and those intangible pieces,” said David Lewis, CEO of HR outsourcing and consulting firm OperationsInc in Norwalk, Conn.
“In the office of the future,” said Kris Duggan, chief executive of BetterWorks, a Silicon Valley startup founded in 2013, “you will always know what you are doing and how fast you are doing it. I couldn’t imagine living in a world where I’m supposed to guess what’s important, a world filled with meetings, messages, conference rooms, and at the end of the day I don’t know if I delivered anything meaningful.”
BetterWorks is focused less on measuring how employees spend their time at the office than in making them more connected to it. One way to do that: Make it feel more like Facebook.
One of its clients, Capco, a financial-services consultant, is seeking to make the millennials happy. “They are looking for gigs, not careers,” said Patrick Gormley, the chief operating officer. “The things that would keep them tied to a job in years gone past — a mortgage, a car loan — have evaporated. That really challenges us to create an outstanding employee experience, so we can retain the best.”
Capco’s 3,000 employees, who are spread out geographically, post their most ambitious goals for the year electronically for all colleagues to see and they, as well as executives, can issue “nudges” and “cheers” to each other.
“Transparency is a tough culture change, particularly for management,” Gormley said. “We’re not used to admitting that we’re not perfect.”
Other workforce developers are enhancing the traditional process of evaluating employees, which used to be annual and backward looking. Now it is more spontaneous.
Amazon uses an internal tool called Anytime Feedback, which allows employees to submit praise or criticism to management. The company says most of the remarks are positive, though some Amazon employees complain that the process can be hidden and harsh.
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Workday, which is based in the Bay Area, has developed a tool called Collaborative Anytime Feedback. Colleagues use it to salute each other — everyone in the company can see who is saying what.
“People wouldn’t put something negative in a public forum, because it would reflect poorly on them,” said Amy Wilson, Workday vice president of human capital management products.
The software also enables employees to comment privately, however, to a colleague’s manager. Workday says these remarks range from positive to at least constructive.
Workday also sells an employee time-tracking program, which it advertises as being able to increase worker productivity, along with reducing labor costs — presumably in human-relations departments — and minimizing compliance risks.
InfoBeans, an Indian company whose U.S. headquarters is in the Bay Area, uses a software system called Buddy, which is made by Sapience, an Indian firm.
InfoBeans’ Mitesh Bohra was surprised by what he found.
“Engineers would write on their time sheets that they were doing development for eight hours, but we started to see a very different set of activities that people are performing,” Bohra said. “Meetings. Personal time. Uncategorized time. Performing research on something that maybe already should be a part of our knowledge repository.”
Glint, based in Redwood City, Calif., with clients including music-streaming site Pandora and marketing automation company Marketo, sends employees what it calls “pulses,” or short surveys about how they are feeling and how they feel about their job.
Glint CEO Jim Barnett said the surveys let executives see how the health of their employees and company are faring in real time, in the same speed with which they might be able to check sales results or marketing impressions. The “pulses” to company employees recur more frequently than traditional reviews, and their data can be aggregated to give a clearer picture of how employees are faring overall.
Marketo was able to use the data gleaned from the Pulses to see that women in one department were ranking their work/life balance substantially lower than expected. The company found a staffing shortage in that area and increased staff.