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The Quantified Worker
#WF32 The potentially large benefits for employers who use technology to empower their workers and build trust
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"The unexamined life is not worth living." Socrates
The Quantified Self movement shares an obsession with ‘self-knowledge through numbers’.
Over the years their hunger for numbers has been fed by a plethora of apps.
Data now includes heartbeats 💓 during the big game, minutes of sweet dreams on Sunday nights, and calories of cakes consumed during December.
The ‘Show and Tells’ from this group of quants can be fun, colourful, and sometimes insightful.
The ‘wearables industry’ is now substantial. In 2021, $29bn was spent globally—more than half the amount spent on sporting goods. The tech is becoming increasingly sophisticated, capturing a wide array of data, and using machine learning over time to make the insights more useful.
Health apps are starting to become useful in disease surveillance. One study found that 63% of covid cases could be detected from changes in resting heart-rate four days before the onset of symptoms.
“Your back is a bit tight today – let’s modify your workout”
An AI physiotherapist barks commands in a robot🤖voice from your smartphone speaker. Using data from the camera, the algorithm can detect when a joint is not moving as expected. In trials, human physiotherapists agreed with the corrections to exercise suggested by the app.
I started learning Portuguese during lockdown using an app. Daily learning is encouraged with well-timed, and sometimes emotional reminders.
I was rather proud of my 56-day-learning-streak, until my real Portuguese teacher told me while drinking real coffee in a real café -
“I’m not sure you were learning the right things with the app, Andy.”
Gamification has its place and emotional blackmail works. There’s nothing wrong with getting excited by the numbers, but it’s worth remembering your original goal.
From Quantified Self to Quantified Worker
Quantifying worker output at scale was inspired by Mr Frederick Winslow Taylor and the Model T car. Today, visually enticing dashboards are used by organisations to provide managers with information to monitor and make decisions. From attrition-risk heat-maps to production output in factories, from networking behaviour to employee sentiment.
As we move from the Quantified Self to the Quantified Worker, the examples below illustrate a number of opportunities and risks that need to be considered by companies.
I’ve Got You Under My Skin
41 employees at a US company specialising in vending machines had an implant, the size of a rice grain, inserted into the flesh between the thumb and forefinger.
The slight discomfort for them was clearly balanced by the convenience of buying a Dr Pepper from the vending machine on the day they forgot their vending card.
From the 1920s Ford Motor Company production lines to Amazon warehouses in the 2020s. With 1.6 million global employees, Amazon rightly receives scrutiny for its employment practices and adoption of new technology.
Here are two different examples.
Amazon introduced cameras in its delivery vans which they claim reduce collisions by 1/3 through in-cab warnings. The four cameras provide biometric feedback indicators which monitor if the driver looks away from the road, speed, or even yawn. A live feed is monitored by managers.
Another use of technology is an app rolled out to US employees, and their households, called, myStrength. This has interactive activities and courses that guide individuals through self-paced, evidence-based treatment for anxiety, stress, depression, substance use, sleep troubles, and more. The program offers a variety of mental health services and support, including one-on-one counseling and crisis support, any time of day.
Over time, with more data and refinements, both these uses of technology have the potential to save lives and increase worker wellbeing.
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The Quantified Retailer
Many organisations are experimenting with using sensor data to understand customers’ behaviour. Retailers gather data about in-store shoppers’ behaviour. Using video surveillance and signals from their smartphones and apps to learn information on how many minutes they spend in a particular aisle, who they interact with, and how long they look at the merchandise before buying it.
Walmart, with 2.3 million employees, has patented a system that listens to the tone of peoples’ voices in shops to determine performance of employees based on those sounds. It is not clear whether this technology will ever be used, but a scenario can be imagined where the ‘best available’ sales colleague is matched to a particular customer to increase sales.
The UnQuantified Benefits
The idea of the Quantified Self is all about self-improvement. There is a big upside for employers with a willing workforce who also reap the rewards.
At our disposal, we have lakes of data, advanced algorithms and statistics (AI) and the talent of behavioural scientists.
I suspect we will learn more about us funny humans in the next 10 years than we did in the last 100 years.
This is a massive opportunity for society to improve health, education, sustainability, and many other domains.
In the retail scenario, an experiment with this type of technology would need to get employee opt-in and then pilots are run. Early findings might show that sales increase in stores using the technology. Employee satisfaction scores increase, bonuses are distributed. The cycle reinforces over time. Customers are happier, market share increases. Everyone wins.
For employers in competitive industries, there is a big opportunity to use the concept of the Quantified Worker for industry advantage. One is around being able to attract and retain talented workers.
If workers trust their employer and have an equitable contract, then there will be large potential benefits in productivity.
On the flip side, employers who use the technology for worker surveillance will lose trust and workers will leave.
There are challenges to overcome, that I touch on below.
What Gets Measured Matters, Maybe?
If you go for a run without your Fitbit, does it count?
One critique of wearables is that they are not effective in helping users achieve their health and fitness goals. The measurements can be inaccurate and the cause and effect reasoning is wrong.
This leads to the quaintly named, Data Fetishist Critique - which implies that people are more enticed by the numbers, than the actual goals 🦉.
The claim is that data in this context becomes overly simplistic, with complex phenomena transcribed into reductionist data.
We need more than just data to make better decisions (see Don’t Be Just Another Person With Data which considers critically assessing the best available evidence before making decisions).
Tom Calvard suggests that one way to look at the quantified worker is as a self-conscious user of data, making sense of their organisational environment.
A question for employers when it comes to worker-related data is, does it really need to be measured, and if so, why? In addition to compliance with global regulations and gaining employee permission.
Trust Trumps Technology
The premise of the Quantified Worker assumes that employees are willing for employers to use their data on movement, and performance and a wider range of data in the future.
There have been some high-profile privacy issues recently with some organisations recreating the oversight of the office for home workers, monitoring keystrokes etc.
If there is no employee trust, then there will be a backlash on using more extensive personal employee data. You will not attract or retain employees.
Bev White, CEO of Nash Squared, makes the point that you should implicitly trust employees.
“If you show people they’re trusted, they’re going to do their very best work. Nine times out of 10, that’s always going to be what happens.”
Quantified Workers Will Need Joined-Up Systems
We use over 30 different platforms, sites, and systems in a typical work week.
With rapid SaaS growth and increased complexity, the overall employee experience has suffered. To provide useful tools and data to employees there is an infrastructure challenge. We need to connect these technology silos, processes, and workflows to mask the complexity behind the scenes.
The Qualitative Summary
The development of the Quantified Worker gives rise to tensions that need to managed. Between openness and privacy, and between data-power between workers and employers.
In competitive industries, the winners will not be those who enable the technology, but those who construct a new contract with employees. The key is to empower the workforce, be transparent, and share the benefits.
If we don’t have empowered employees, then all we have is Digital Taylorism — a modern version of ‘scientific management’ that threatens to dehumanise the workplace.
We will see more Quantified Workers, but only at the speed of trust.
Further Reading for Quantified Work Futurists
The Quantified Self - The Economist
The Quantified Self - Deborah Lupton
The Age of Surveillance Capitalism - Shoshana Zuboff