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Tracking workers' every move can boost productivity — and stress

Employers count keystrokes, read emails and monitor personal social media accounts. They time bathroom breaks. The cost of efficiency may be worker satisfaction.

April 08, 2013|By Alana Semuels, Los Angeles Times
  • Phil Richards, who drives a forklift at a warehouse in Santa Fe Springs, is required to wear a headset through which he is told what to do and how quickly he must do it. "We're just like human machines," he says.
Phil Richards, who drives a forklift at a warehouse in Santa Fe Springs,… (Jay L. Clendenin, Los Angeles…)

Second of two parts

Phil Richards used to like his job driving a forklift in a produce and meat warehouse. He took pride in steering a case of beef with precision.

Now, he says, he has to speed through the warehouse to meet quotas, tracked by bosses each step of the way. Through a headset, a voice tells him what to do and how much time he has to do it.

It makes the Unified Grocers warehouse in Santa Fe Springs operate smoothly with fewer employees, but it also makes Richards' work stressful.

"We're just like human machines," said Richards, 52. "But with machines, they don't care whether you feel good, or if you're having a bad day."

Technology has eliminated many onerous work tasks, but it's now one of the factors contributing to a harsher work environment.

Employers are using technology to read emails and monitor keystrokes, measure which employees spend the most time on social networking websites and track their movements inside and outside the office. They can see who works fastest and who talks the most on the phone. They can monitor how much time people spend talking to co-workers — and how much time they spend in the bathroom.

The tough workplace: stories and photos

It's all part of an effort to drive down costs and squeeze as much production as possible out of each employee.

"In the kind of economic environment we're in now, companies become very risk-averse. Managers at every level are saying, 'I need to know what everyone is doing,'" said Peter Cheese, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, a global association of human resource professionals. "But there is concern that this technology is being used in some Big Brother way to check in on employees."

For companies, the reward is financial. Unified Grocers, which supplies food to grocery chains including Vons and Gelson's, trimmed its payroll 25% from 2002 to 2012 — but managed to increase sales 36%, according to regulatory filings.

If workers in the warehouses complete their tasks faster than expected, they earn a bonus, which helps reduce labor costs because the company can get more work done with fewer people, said Rod van Bebber, senior vice president of operations. Companies learned a lesson during the recession, he said: If there are fewer people and the same amount of work, employees will find a way to get it done.

If everyone does a little more, that can mean "one less employee you have to hire," Van Bebber said. "That's one less health and welfare package."

For a company like Unified Grocers, he added, it's a matter of survival.

"If the independent grocer is going to compete with the major chain, you've got to be as efficient as you can," he said. "That way we can compete and pay our people good money and benefits."

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But the cost of efficiency may be worker satisfaction. Workers thrive when they feel trusted and allowed to experiment, including at places such as Google Inc., where employees get time to work on their own projects, Cheese said. When employees are watched too closely, "it becomes a micromanagement control system and you disengage the workforce," he said.

The sanitation truck that James Brooker III drives in Raleigh, N.C., has a GPS device that enables his bosses to track his every move. Co-workers have been disciplined for driving too slowly or for taking an extra 10 minutes on a lunch break on a tough day, he said.

"You're always worried that you're not doing your job correctly," he said. "It makes you stressed out, and there's so much pressure to rush."

As a nurse at Mills-Peninsula Health Services in Burlingame, Calif., Genel Morgan was required to wear a badge around her neck with a tracking device so the hospital could see where she was at all times. Sometimes, a camera in the intensive care unit would switch on so doctors could observe the nurses at work and make suggestions based on patients' charts.

Sutter Health, which runs the hospital, says that full-time nurses at its Bay Area hospitals earn salaries of $136,000 a year on average, not including benefits, and that technology helps improve patient safety and bring down healthcare costs.

To Morgan, however, the monitoring seems focused on the employees, not the patients. She retired last week, earlier than she had intended, in part because of what she described as an intrusive atmosphere at work.

"Sometimes, I feel that they're questioning that we're not on top of it," she said.

Elaine Murszewski worked in customer service for more than 30 years. The job she found two years after getting laid off was in customer service too, but her new employer monitored her closely, taking the personal touch out of the job, she said.

The new employer, payroll provider Paychex, kept track of the length of her phone calls, the amount of time she took between calls, and the times she wasn't at her desk. If a caller was particularly difficult, she said, the numbers didn't reflect that.

"Metrics are an employee's worst enemy," she said.

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