Technology, productivity and good work: views from the ground

What effect does the introduction of new technologies in the workplace have on good work and productivity?

By Fabian Wallace-Stephens and Sarah Darrall

Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize winning economist, famously said “productivity isn’t everything, but in the long-run it is almost everything”. He was talking about the economy as a whole — the more productive the utilisation of labour and capital, the more prosperous is an economy — but the same principle is largely true of firms too. Putting to one side rent-seeking, profits can only be grown by the more effective use of people or investment. A firm not improving its productivity is a firm that is at best stagnating.

This presents something of a logical dilemma for this enquiry. On the one hand, the RSA Future Work Centre and Carnegie UK Trust have established a comprehensive strategy for measuring good work, grounded in seven dimensions of job quality: terms of employment; pay and benefits; health, safety and psychological wellbeing; job design and nature of work; social support and cohesion; worker voice and representation; and work life balance. Furthermore, this conceptualisation of good work has a positive relationship with productivity.

Yet, this is where the quandary emerges because if productivity is ‘everything’ to firms and good work can clearly help organisational leaders raise it, then we should probably expect to see many more examples of good work being used to boost productivity in the contemporary British economy than we do. This is important because any steps policymakers take to encourage higher productivity through good work must clearly take account of how organisational leaders take day-to-day decisions about work. A theoretical perspective alone might miss barriers to best practice that would seem obvious at firm-level.

This essay attempts to provide fresh insights into the lived experience of the modern workplace. Working with Carnegie UK Trust, we convened a large workshop with employers from a range of different sectors of the UK economy. We also conducted two in-depth site visits, to a franchised restaurant chain and an NHS hospital respectively, where we spoke directly with workers, managers and HR representatives to learn first-hand how technology is transforming their organisations and the working lives of their employees. Our conclusions are qualitative, but we hope the granularity provided can add a richness to the ongoing debates about good work, technology and productivity.

Units through the door: how employers think about productivity

The two organisations we visited as part of our enquiry, a franchised restaurant chain and an NHS hospital, are clearly very different. They have a fundamentally different approach to demand — the NHS hospital is only concerned with managing demand, whilst the restaurant is clearly looking to grow demand. Yet despite this, we found both organisations thought about productivity in similar ways and attempted to raise it largely by measuring points of delivery efficiency within the organisation.

When we asked the owner of the restaurant directly “what does it mean to have a productive day at work here, and how is it communicated to staff?”, he explained that “it is all about speed of service” and “units through the door”. The restaurant has deployed a range of sensor-based technologies to measure this, including a dashboard that measures how long it takes for food to be ready from the point of making an order at the drive through, to the point of collection. Even when pressed directly about whether this measurement can capture notions of quality — for example, whether the food is tasty or hot enough — he defaulted to the notion that speed of service can capture this aspect of productivity too. In part, this reflects the high degree of standardisation (some of which is automated — see below) present in the production line: there are few things other than speed that appear variable when everything is working as it should. However, it also reflects an operational ethos that somewhat elides productivity with efficiency, with measurement entirely focused on the latter. The dashboard does not even measure how many units go through the door — or output per hour — but rather the average time it takes the team to serve a customer.

We find a similar ethos in the hospital — one representative, when asked the same questions, gave a similar answer: “how quickly people get out of hospital”. But our discussion here highlighted more tensions. For example, we were told how this approach, driven primarily by centrally directed targets, often creates stress for staff and that “there is a delicate balancing act” as patient outcomes also matter. For example, Patient Reported Outcomes Measures (PROMs) are used to evaluate the quality of care delivered by Clinical Commissioning Groups for patients who have undergone hip replacement surgery. Nevertheless, targets sometimes seem to have an operational priority over care. As one interviewee put it, while health professionals will get “told off by managers for not meeting time outcomes”, they are not held to account in the same way for health outcomes.

The myth of automation: how employers are deploying new technologies

At both our site visits and our employers’ workshop, we found the deployment of new technology to be central to how leaders seek to boost productivity. Yet this does not typically appear to be driven by a desire to improve work quality, or at least that is a second order consideration. Across all our research, conversations about how technology is transforming management practices — such as performance management or shift scheduling — were much more common than those around automation substituting human work.

Perhaps the largest technology project we observed was the deployment of self-service kiosks at the fast food restaurant. This has reduced the number of staff working on tills, but overall headcount has stayed the same, with more people now working in the kitchen. These kiosks are not therefore a cost saving in terms of staff time, but have proven to be revenue generating — customers spend an average of £1 more per order. There are also good work benefits: in the kitchen automated drinks machines free up workers, as they are now only needed to place lids on cups, while “intelligent grills” use sensors to automatically detect how long to cook different sized burgers. This has allowed the restaurant to serve a wider range of products. The data dashboard, collected by a variety of sensors at the kiosks themselves, is used to provide intelligence to management: “after a bad shift, we can pinpoint things, use the data as a conversation starter with workers to understand why there was a problem”.

At the hospital, a handful of robots have been deployed in the cancer ward. However, in contrast to some discussions we had elsewhere in the hospital, their deployment has been driven by patient outcomes rather than efficiency. As one representative puts it: “in the old days, you had to have your prostate removed through open surgery. Now we can operate with much greater precision”. In fact, by some measures this might actually reduce the number of operations conducted: “patients spend less time in hospital beds and have better outcomes, but physicians are less productive as the procedure takes longer, and the equipment is also more expensive”.

At our workshop, we also heard how NHS Trusts are developing “digital control centres” that use real time data to make more accurate predictions about patient demand to optimise the allocation of staff across multiple sites. Clearly, the more efficient utilisation of labour in this way would, by definition, have significant productivity-boosting potential, but ensuring it is rolled-out in a way consistent with good work will be a significant policy challenge. The key is to ensure that the risks and benefits of flexibility are shared by both employer and employee, thus avoiding what the Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices defined as “one-sided flexibility”.

Risk or reward: how technology affects good work

In the fast food restaurant, new technology was primarily introduced to improve efficiency and generate higher consumer demand. However, we also uncovered good work benefits.

One worker suggested that she enjoyed her job more since these new systems (automation in the kitchen and the self-service kiosks) had been introduced, because they “made things easier”; others noted how the kitchen was now a quieter and even safer working environment. Indeed, the most common complaint about technology was that it would occasionally malfunction, which would then make their jobs much harder. Clearly, technology introduces new dependencies into the business, but most were keen to stress how, relatively speaking, it was beneficial. Nevertheless, the emergence of these dependencies does emphasise the point that technology can potentially affect skill levels and worker autonomy through lowering the task demands or standardising job requirements. The experience of this standardisation came out in some interviews. One worker shared her experience of working so quickly during a night shift that she “felt like a robot”.

At our hospital site visit we were also warned about how technology can place excessive strain on workers. One representative spoke about the introduction of electronic health records and how “this will change everything”. The concern was that the technology was having the inverse effect to that intended and meant doctors were spending more time doing paperwork, leading to fears of physician burnout.

Where the restaurant encountered problems with the roll-out of technology, training was viewed by management as something of a panacea for all performance or productivity problems. While workers agreed training was important, they shared with us several additional insights about what they felt was necessary to work productively, most of which made reference to good management. Good managers were described as those who were “good at communicating” and who “know who is best suited to different tasks and how to make the best of a bad situation”. Workers also felt it was important to have adequate worker voice channels. By this they meant a line manager who would “let them give their point of view and listen to their opinion”.

One method we saw used by managers to motivate workers at the restaurant might best be described as the ‘gamification’ of work — competitions, with prizes available, for producing good performance. Some workers welcomed this, suggesting it made their role more enjoyable. The dashboard therefore effectively tapped into one of the more subjective aspects of good work: pride. “I feel very proud to be in one of the top performing restaurants in the country,” one worker put it. In theory, there could be a darker edge to this — where poor data is used for punitive performance management. However, the management told us the data was only ever used for supportive conversations and the workers we interviewed did not seem unduly concerned by the possibility of workplace monitoring being used in this way.

The robots used in cancer surgery provided a good example of where technology is having more positive effects on health care professionals. Long-term occupational health across the NHS was identified as a major issue by the NHS representatives we spoke to. Robots are seen as a technology that could enable people to “work much longer from an early age”; for instance, by reducing risk of back injury because surgeons “could be operating on someone while sitting in another room”.

We also saw an example of how when workers have autonomy over the technology they are operating it can lead to unexpected but productive outcomes. In the hospital, iPads were initially introduced for physicians to update notes with, but it transpired that they were actually more useful for taking photos and examining the progression of injuries. Similarly, at our employers’ workshop, representatives from the transport sector told us about how workers were using their initiative and communicating delays on the London underground via Twitter. This goes against working procedure but delivers a more effective service. It is clear here that when autonomy interacts with technology, it can generate greater productivity. Not only this, it could allow workers to feel in control which encourages greater acceptance of innovation. Autonomy is not for everyone, however. Workers we spoke with at the restaurant valued flexibility over autonomy, pointing to the freedom to choose how to fit their work patterns around their home life as one of the key benefits of working there.

Central to the impact of technology on workers is whether it interrupts their core or periphery work. That is, whether it impacts on the elements they identify with and care most about, or on those that they feel don’t contribute to their success or happiness. If it is the latter, then workers tend to be largely happy with implementation and do not require in-depth consultation. If it is the former, however, disruption is felt much more profoundly. In the restaurant, many of the tasks did not intrinsically pertain to the core category, instead workers cited progression and flexibility being their key drivers, and hence were more accepting of technological changes. In contrast, much of the work in the NHS hospital hinged on core tasks, and there we found tech adoption to be slower and more pained. Similar results were found in ethnographic research by Google; office workers perceived it to be acceptable for AI to substitute peripheral work but resisted its use for core work.

Who controls the future: worker agency in an age of radical technology

Lacking across both sites was a sense that workers had any agency over the implementation of new technologies. As one fast food restaurant worker told us “I don’t know what’s coming — it should be a balance between people and technology”. But decisions to introduce new technologies appeared to be much more driven by a desire to improve customer experience, though this can take time: “when we first introduced it [the self-service kiosk] customers did not like it, then later when they visited our other stores, they asked why we did not have them there!”. Meanwhile in the hospital we were told that there are hopes innovation in the NHS will be driven by patients, but that this can slow down the pace of change because “apart from ‘expert patients’, most people don’t know what they would change about using health services, that’s why they suggest things like the food”.

A common theme across our enquiry was that both managers and workers are broadly optimistic about new technologies but desire a more worker-centred approach to adoption. Many employers we spoke to as part of our enquiry highlighted the importance of job design in ensuring that technology changes will promote both productivity and good work. To borrow the words of one workshop participant: “the extent to which automation will change the way tasks are allocated, is essentially an ethical decision on one level, as well as a management decision”.

At our workshop, one employer told us how they had used data to make decisions about technology that improve job design: “we used to have high turnover in a particular admin role. Based on this data we decided to automate the role and people now spend more time in client-facing roles”. Some of the restaurant workers also spoke to this point; in reference to individualised data one said, “I wouldn’t mind it at all if it helped with my progression, then it’s useful.” They could see the benefits on a personal level, recognising that it could highlight how they could improve their performance and the subsequent potential for promotion. We found similar insights at the hospital, where workplace shortages have seen health professionals other than physicians step up to take on more clinical responsibilities. One representative tells us how “in Endoscopy, we did not have enough doctors; nurses are now clinicians, everyone else has moved up a layer”. However, he adds that not everyone wants to be a “quasi doctor” so “it is important to release some people’s time to get on with patient care”. And they have “got to make sure people are paid right”, if given additional responsibilities.

Worker voice is seen by employers as crucial to alleviating these concerns. As one workshop participant argued, “if you’re not happy with the tasks you are doing you need to be able to speak to your manager and communicate this; you need to have some control over job design.” Employers were equally eager to push for change surrounding voice and representation when radically labour-shaping technology is rolled out: “we’re going to need to find practical answers to the questions of how you involve workers in those conversations around the changing workplace.”

Job design for good work

This last insight emphasises perhaps the central message of our research. Across both sites, we found support for the argument that technology tends to change tasks, rather than whole occupations. Therefore, if technology is to be a driver of good work and productivity, this will require a stronger focus by employers on job design. As the role of worker voice in alleviating concerns about technology shows, employers’ approach to job design needs to be both holistic (too often job design strategies focused exclusively on tasks, with less thought about how those tasks ultimately relate to jobs or an organisation’s wider systems) and mediated through a process where workers have some agency over the outcome. Yet if firms can approach technology roll-out in this manner, then our findings suggest it has a key role to play in the future of both good work and higher productivity.

This essay is part of a collection by the RSA and Carnegie UK Trust, exploring in depth the relationship between productivity and work quality.



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We are the RSA. The royal society for arts, manufactures and commerce. We unite people and ideas to resolve the challenges of our time.