Friday, January 24, 2020

2020’s Brave New World of Work: Uncomfortable Toilets, Hiring on Health Habits, and Tracking Detailed Behavior


It’s been a while since I’ve seen “Big Brother” invoked in a headline or even an article.  Maybe George Orwell’s 1984, which was itself shorthand for the sort of things in today’s post, is fading out of our collective knowledge.  Yet it’s never been more pertinent. 

Off and on over the past ten years people have suggested doing away with cash, which, aside from messing up the likes of flea markets and private poker games, would potentially allow authorities, and anyone else who paid their way in, to see neat, categorized, comprehensive reports of how much so-and-so spent, and did not spend, on what.  Otherwise, such techniques have moved into areas at least people are choosing to occupy:  workplaces. 

First is a Fox News December 26th piece by Kim Komando, “Shocking facts about how much your employer monitors you.”  The author and radio host gave us at least a fine summary of what your bosses can collect and view:  anything running on your computer, including your keystroke count and amount of time spent online; any emails you receive or send; “mileage,” “route,” “driving behavior, including speed,” and even “time spent in and out of” any corporate vehicles you operate; location information from company smartphones (or your own if that’s the one you use for business), including after hours; and, even if you have not provided any passwords, your social media activity.  Whew!  The best thing about all this is that a very low percentage of this capability is actually being used and seen by management – the worst is that this capability is here, and workers will now always wonder what they will hear about at performance review time.  As well, there are now a whole new set of metrics which can be selectively used to document justification to favor those most personally liked in pay, promotion, travel, and training decisions.

Second was Amanda Mull’s “Workplace Wellness Comes for the Working Class,” dated January 3rd in The Atlantic.  It related that, beginning February 1, U-Haul will, wherever legal, bar nicotine users from becoming new employees.  There are 21 such states, of which 17 allow testing for it.  On one hand I sympathize with corporate wishes to “cut costs” – I read around 1990 in Boardroom Reports that smokers cost their companies an average of about $9,000 apiece per year, divided roughly equally into extra workplace cleaning and damage, higher health insurance costs, work time lost on smoke breaks, and the correlating higher absenteeism – on the other, restrictions of this sort cross the line between work activities and personal lives, and I see no reason why, using comprehensive data now available, firms could not also choose, say, to bar prospective workers buying a lot of cholesterol-rich food. 

The third piece was sort of bizarre, and its subject could head – pun intended – a list of business trends we hope will not last long.  Joe Pinsker’s December 19th The Atlantic “Slanted Toilets Are the Logical Extreme of Hyperproductivity” described how a new commode, called in yes-I’ll-say-Orwellian fashion “the StandardToilet,” is equipped with “a seat that’s set at an incline and lightly strains users’ legs, making it unpleasant to sit on for longer than five minutes or so.”  Its primary purpose, per its manufacturer, is “getting employees back to work in a timely manner.”  No, I don’t think this productivity device will get too far – aside from discriminating against women and causing issues for some people with physical problems, it is laughably mean-spirited, evoking Dickens as well.  The need to allow for time spent in the john is inherent to hiring living creatures, and once again we have an example of management’s tendency to punish everyone instead of dealing with individual problem performers.  All in all, a defensible but poopy idea.     

Will these three things happen in most 2020s workplaces?  No, clearly not.  But they will exemplify ways that employers can increase, and threaten to increase, control.  There will be well-publicized instances of problems caused by these or similar solutions.  How the people involved, including the courts, handle them will determine whether the 2030s are more or less worker-friendly.  

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