As work continues to shift from office to remote office, employers are finding new ways to keep tabs on their employees without even being in the same building: worker productivity scores. According to a new report from The New York Times, some of the nation’s largest companies are starting to use software that tracks employee productivity.
The shift to remote monitoring comes amid declining overall worker productivity due to the pandemic and a still buoyant job market. While monitoring software can, in theory, help companies ensure their employees stay on task, the way they measure productivity can ignore work being done off the computer and cause employees to lose their wages.
“The problem is that the measurements are wrong,” Jodi Kantor, who co-wrote the story with Arya Sundaram, told The New York Times. She spoke with “Marketplace Morning Report” host David Brancaccio for his findings.
Below is an edited transcript of their conversation:
David Brancacio: I think many of us knew that Amazon was watching its warehouse workers, its fulfillment center workers, closely. But it’s not just Amazon, you’ve found it. There is a growing industry that helps companies know how long we type on the keyboard?
Jodi Kantor: Well, and not only that, but it migrates upwards into white collar work. We were frankly a bit shocked to find that therapists are rated for “idle time,” which means you know how long they aren’t clicking their keyboards. We found MBA graduates who were only paid for minutes spent on the computer. And we found engineers who had to undergo full-time monitoring if they wanted to work from home. And so they were saying, in interviews, the kind of things that low-income workers have been saying for years that, you know, they feel like they’ve lost their agency, that their jobs are relentless, that they don’t don’t have control.
Brancacio: You know, what about thinking time or the real high value things a top worker can bring to the job? Is it monitored?
Kantor: Well, so the biggest problem with software – and listen, a lot of people argue it, there can be a real business case, to keep very accurate track of your workforce. However, the problem is that the measurements are wrong. I mean, we just heard crazy stories from workers who talked about the disconnect between the reality of what makes someone great at their job and what those systems measure. You know, if you’re framing someone, that won’t necessarily be captured by those systems, because it doesn’t really make a digital impression.
Brancacio: And so even beyond that, some of the systems, you know, they’re digital systems, they should be accurate, they’re not that accurate? They don’t even understand?
Kantor: For example, you know, UnitedHealth is a big, big company, right? It’s, you know, a health and insurance giant. They were watching therapists and social workers, during what’s called downtime, which means if their keyboards were inactive, downtime would start accumulating, [which] would even affect their salary [and] their chance of getting a bonus. However, what some of these social workers and therapists told us was that their downtime was piling up because they were having sensitive conversations with or about patients. So the systems said they were idle, when in fact they were doing the most important parts of their job.
Brancacio: Are these systems developed in-house? Or is there a growing industry providing this type of software?
Kantor: Both, but part of the reason this story took so long is that it’s not a technology like Facebook, you know, where we can look at a platform. Basically, we called the story “The Rise of the Worker Productivity Score” because it’s like there’s a million different software, widgets, and tracking systems. They vary greatly in terms of visibility and operation. But they are all meant to do the same thing. They are meant to help your employer know if you are working hard or not.
Brancacio: You alluded to it, but let me cut to the chase. With remote work, that’s good, isn’t it? Defining and measuring success. You don’t want the people you’re responsible for having fun. But it seems like it has to be largely a more sophisticated idea of what you’re measuring.
Kantor: Well, we’ve really heard a lot of stories of cheating with remote work. They were quite extraordinary. David, I had never considered that with remote work some people can double up on their employers and take on more than one job at a time and get paid for both. We even found cases of remote workers who had outsourced their work to lower paid workers and took the difference. And then they’re like, of course, like a lot of people, you know, napping or watching porn or whatever. There is no doubt that look, there are abandoned people in every industry, but as you say, we discovered that there were also people who worked very hard and were punished by inaccurate software.
Brancacio: We meet in your report a hospice chaplain, the Reverend Richardson, I think, there to help when a person is facing the end of life. The chaplain’s productivity was monitored and — am I right — going to a funeral when the person was already dead got more points in the system than visiting the person who was still alive?
Kantor: So that’s one of the things that surprised us the most. We like to appeal to readers of The New York Times to ask them questions about productivity monitoring. And David, we started hearing from hospice chaplains in several different states, like these people weren’t coordinating, they were just writing to us. And, you know, we were like what happens? So we called more and more hospice chaplains. And the example we’re giving is actually a nonprofit system in Minnesota, they had already tracked productivity. But two years ago, during the pandemic, they introduced a stricter system with higher point totals. It’s not second-to-second surveillance like some workers do. They had to project their point totals, like you say, you know, everything had a value, 0.25 points for a condolence call, as little as one point for a visit to a dying person. And then at the end of the day, the software would calculate if they had reached those totals. The problem they said was that the death totally defied planning. So, you know, they would go for the day, and, you know, people would cancel them or have emotional breakdowns, or they would die. And they felt like instead of just dealing with those circumstances, in a really pure way, in a way that reflected their calling and why they were doing this job, they were more concerned about their point totals.
Brancaccio: And Jodi, your play has been out in the world for a few days now. Are there any warning signs that the stories are prompting a reassessment of this approach to monitoring productivity?
Kantor: We see so much debate, David. We received thousands of responses from readers. And in fact, there is one company that changed its policies right after the story came out. So we will soon write more about this in the journal.
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