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  • Is Someone Watching You?​—The “Electronic Boss”
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    “THE monitoring of employees is increasingly being done by machines,” reports Technology Review. “Much more is being monitored, and the monitoring has expanded from the production line to the office.”

    A 1987 study by the congressional Office of Technology Assessment revealed that there are from four to six million American clerical workers performing their jobs with a computerized watchdog continuously monitoring them through a video display terminal.

    Computer monitoring systems are most widely used by insurance companies, banks, utilities, telephone companies, and the airline and hotel industries. In such places employees work under the watchful eye of an “electronic boss”​—a surveillance system designed to watch what they do on the job and how fast they do it.

    An “electronic boss” never shuts his eyes. Through his network of computer cables, video monitors, and telephone bugs, he can keep watch over hundreds of workers at the same time and let management know exactly what everyone is doing during every minute of the workday. With the use of computer monitoring on the rise, more and more employees have reason to wonder if someone​—or something—​is watching them.

    How do employees and managers feel about the new “boss”? And how has the use of computer monitoring affected the workplace?

    What They Can Do

    Computer systems can automatically measure the time it takes for an office worker to make a phone call or ring up a sale on a cash register. At the push of a button, a manager at a remote location can determine an employee’s typing speed or tally the number of errors a clerk has made on a given day.

    Some monitoring systems allow employers to measure “unplugged time,” that is, the amount of time workers spend away from their desks to go to the rest room or to take a break. Others let the manager listen in on conversations at employee workstations. They can hear everything you or your neighbor says.

    Technology Review reported on one company that installed computers in its fleet of trucks so that a truck driver’s speed, gear shifting, and idling could be monitored. The computer even reports how long a driver stops for lunch or a coffee break!

    Why Some Advocate Them

    Some advocate computer monitoring. They say the practice allows employers to evaluate a worker’s performance more accurately and objectively than a human manager, who may be subject to his or her own prejudices.

    “The computer has no biases,” wrote Vico E. Henriques, president of the Computer and Business Equipment Manufacturers Association. “It treats everyone equally regardless of gender, race, religion, physical impairment, previous job experience or other factors that can be the basis for a discrimination suit against

    management .”

    It is claimed that as a result of monitoring each individual’s performance by computers, employees with outstanding work skills are less likely to be overlooked by their bosses. “Automated measurement can, for example, allow an organization to more easily identify its high-​achieving employees and reward them appropriately,” wrote Henriques in

    Management World.

    But while computer monitoring can be an effective management tool, Henriques concedes that it can also be used in a “thoughtless, even irresponsible manner.” How is that?

    A Heartless “Boss”

    “Computer monitoring increases worker stress, reduces job satisfaction, and ultimately subverts management ’s own goal of greater productivity,” claim Karen Nussbaum and Virginia duRivage in the magazine Business and Society Review.

    Indeed, many employees have complained that computer monitoring puts too much pressure on them. The “electronic boss” is producing a crop of stressed-​out workers, they say.

    Some companies have used computer technology to boost production speed, forcing employees to race to keep up with their machines. Others monitor employees so closely that it has created an atmosphere of paranoia. Time

    magazine reported on a West Coast airline that uses computers to monitor precisely how many seconds its 400 reservations clerks spend on each phone call and how much time passes between calls. The employees earn demerit points if their calls repeatedly exceed 109 seconds or if they spend more than 12 minutes per day taking restroom breaks beyond the hour allotted for lunch and coffee breaks. Earning 37 demerit points in one year can mean the end of a job.

    Systems like that create an adversarial relationship between labor and

    management , critics say, and make workers feel as if managers are poised over their shoulder, ready to spring on the slightest variation in work speed.

    In addition, a ‘remote-​control boss’ can dehumanize the relationship between labor and management . Employees begin to feel that they are working to please a machine​—hardly a gratifying experience. Instead of bolstering production, computer monitoring can actually slow it down by taking away an employee’s initiative and morale.

    “Machines cannot motivate workers, they cannot understand employee problems, and they cannot foster company loyalty,” argue Nussbaum and duRivage.

    Living With Such a “Boss”

    Since love is often not the principle on which the world operates, neither the employee nor the employer may have the best interests of the other at heart. Thus, the “electronic boss” has become a reality. However, both labor and

    management agree that much can be done to make computer monitoring more effective and less stressful.

    For example, managers can give employees advance notification of monitoring so that they don’t feel that anyone is spying on them without warning. Some managers recommend that the employees be given free access to any data collected about them.

    Henriques suggests that “the period over which employees are monitored should be reasonable, and allowances should be made for normal up-​and-​down energy cycles.” In harmony with this, some employers have found it wise to monitor a worker’s performance over a longer period of time, allowing good days and bad days to average out over a period of weeks or months.

    Stress is further reduced when workers are permitted to help set realistic standards for performance, rather than letting the computer dictate how fast a job should be done. “Some firms ask employees to help establish behavioral norms at work and thus cut down on the need for monitoring,” says Technology Review.

    Interestingly, the Bible says that work “is the gift of God” and that “every man should eat and indeed drink and see good for all his hard work.” And it adds: “There is nothing better than that the man should rejoice in his works, for that is his portion.” (Ecclesiastes 3:13, 22 ) Thus, we can be confident that in God’s new world, there will be no room for such joy-​robbing monitoring devices as “electronic bosses.”

    However, until that new day dawns, facing an “electronic boss” day after day can be intimidating. But a positive attitude can help you cope. One telephone operator said he handled the pressures of working under electronic surveillance by having “a certain amount of resiliency and a sense of humor.” So if you are obligated to work under such a heartless “boss,” be positive and flexible. Try your best to get along with the “boss” who never stops watching you.

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