All eyes were on Bessemer, Alabama this week, as workers at Amazon’s warehouse voted on whether or not they would unionize. Although the historic attempt was defeated, the demands made by union proponents raise broader questions around the future of workplace surveillance, both for the warehouse workers at Amazon and more broadly.
In addition to questions of pay and benefits, one of the main drivers of unionization efforts was the lack of human dignity in the workplace brought about by Amazon’s constant surveillance. Tracking productivity metrics, such as Amazon’s “time off task,” is crucial for optimizing operations and ensuring deliveries are fast and low-cost. However, by ruthlessly focusing on tracked metrics, Amazon has left a number of employees feeling overwhelming pressure and stress to reach metrics-based results.
Although Amazon struck down its current unionization attempts, this does not prevent workers from trying to unionize in the future, both at Amazon and elsewhere. Employers, as such, should be galvanized by this event to examine their own strategies for workplace data tracking and surveillance, to ensure they are maintaining human dignity while balancing for productivity.
Based on the controversy surrounding Amazon’s surveillance mechanisms, I believe there are a few key lessons learned that should be implemented at other organizations collecting surveillance data, including the following:
- Start with a culture of trust – The way employees react to surveillance is largely driven by their overarching views of the organization. If they see the company as a collaborative, learning-oriented organization, they will likely view the outputs of surveillance data in the same vein. However, if there is a lack of trust in the organization, employees will draw their own conclusions, fearing promotion and firing decisions will be based on metrics to which they might not have full visibility. Organization should push to build trust from the bottom-up before implementing large employee-tracking initiatives
- Be clear on objectives – At Amazon, there is a relentless focus on optimization, which drives the company’s rationale for monitoring. However, employees do not always have a clear understanding of the expectations with regards to performance. For example, many employees have cited constant fear of termination based on an unknown threshold of their individual “time off task” metrics. If companies are setting boundaries on unacceptable metric outputs, they should clearly inform their employees, so they can target these goals
- Help employees improve – Similar to a lack of clarity on objectives, Amazon employees felt additional stress after seeing individuals terminated due to their “time off task” metrics. Rather than rushing to terminate, companies should keep employees in the loop on their metrics and provide them with the tools and resources to improve. This can include training, mentorship, and feedback from top-performers
- Gather feedback to understand what the metrics don’t track – No one metric can provide a holistic understanding of how employees are spending their time. If a company seeks to track productivity via a simple metric, it is critical that they gather feedback to understand the full context and what the metric isn’t measuring. For example, “time off task” at Amazon includes all non-packing activities as off-task, even if they are critical responsibilities associated with the role. By gathering feedback from employees, companies can learn what else may be driving these metrics and understand them more holistically.