Privacy and productivity in the workplace

Monday, October 24, 2016
by Cameron Shelley

Science writer David Berreby has posted an interesting piece in Psychology Today about the relationship between privacy and productivity in the workplace

Berreby notes that modern technology provides employers with the means to closely monitor their employees.  Every keystroke on a computer may be logged, every maneuver of a driver recorded, every action of an assembly-line worker monitored.  One justification for this sort of management is that it increases productivity.  Berreby notes that it isn't necessarily so.

In one study, workers in some areas of an assembly line were literally screened off from the rest of the plant so that they could manage their own activities without direct supervision.  Those workers were 10 to 15 percent more productive than their peers.

The problem seems to be that workers are not given sufficient autonomy when the are under constant surveillance by management:

  • "The answer is obvious to anyone who has ever been an employee. Their innovations  weren't in their job descriptions. When they were being watched, they had to play to their audience."

This result does not necessarily imply that workers should not be monitored but that monitoring must be for a purpose and, just as importantly, the audience for that monitoring need not be their managers.

For example, records of a company's drivers may be sent to a team of coaches—not managers—whose job is only to help drivers improve their performance. 

Berreby's point relates to the potential of modern technology to support a kind of robo-Taylorism.  Frederick Taylor was a pioneering management consultant who attempted to improve industrial productivity by minutely studying and modifying the activities of workers, down to every movement they made on their jobs.  Stopwatches and movie recordings were employed for the purpose.

The immediate aim was to address "soldiering", that is, loafing, on the job.  Although management needs to supervise work, the notion that more supervision is always better is evidently untrue. 

The ability of modern technology to surveil employees ever more closely is tempting to managers because it gives them ever more control.  The autonomy of the people surveilled, however important, is readily overlooked.

Neil Postman made the point that technological innovations may place social control in the hands of particular social groups, e.g., employers.  Whether or not this control is appropriate, or how it is best exercised, is a matter of importance, as this example illustrates.