Tracking workers' every move raises productivity and stress alike

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

LOS ANGELES TIMESApril 30, 2013 


Jason Arrendondo, 28, works at Unified Grocers in Commerce, Calif. The company uses technology to drive down costs and enhance productivity, but some employees say it increases stress by pressuring them to rush.

FRANCINE ORR — Los Angeles Times / MCT

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, Calif., operate smoothly with fewer employees, but it also makes Richards' work stressful.

"We're just like human machines," says 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 or spend in the bathroom.

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," says 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 percent from 2002 to 2012 - but managed to increase sales 36 percent, 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, says Rod van Bebber, senior vice president of operations. Companies learned a lesson during the recession, he says: 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 says. "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 says.

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 says.

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 says.

"You're always worried that you're not doing your job correctly," he says. "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.

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 says.

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