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Letter sent on Aug 5, 2015

Who’s watching you work?

One must-read piece story every weekday, plus what makes it great.


All around us, jobs are changing. At the edges, the system nibbles away at the nature of work— with zero-hour contracts, at-will employment, reductions in benefits and drubbing of expectations. From the middle, the lines between work and not-work are disappearing thanks to our always-on, constantly-connected lives. Oh, and then there’s measurement.

The Spy Who Fired Me: The human costs of workplace monitoring

By Esther Kaplan, Harper’s

For every driver within his purview, [Rose’s Supervisor] can monitor a neighborhood map with the driver’s route traced in teal and the stops marked and numbered. Another window shows a complete list of addresses on the route and the number of packages per address. A third window shows the driver’s speed, whether the engine is off or on, whether the bulkhead — the massive, rolling rear door — is open or closed, whether the seat belt is engaged, whether the driver is backing up, and more. In the center of the screen, a fourth window shows the number of minutes allotted per stop and whether the driver is under or over that target.
I saw a video capture of a telematics report from a facility in Queens that made clear just how unrealistic those allotments are. Every few stops the driver beats his time by a second, or by nineteen seconds, or even by a minute. But more often than not, the driver goes over, by three minutes, or four, or even ten. As I watched, the driver’s cumulative over/under number kept creeping up, until it was north of four hours over. At the same time, safety measures, like seat-belt use, got spotty. A printout of the data from a single driver’s shift can be up to forty pages long. There might be a page dedicated to backing-up events, another for stop times, and so on. But sprinting to an apartment and slapping a delivery-attempt notice on the door without ringing the bell or waiting for someone to make it down a three-story walk-up — well, that’s a shortcut UPS’s telematics system would have no way of catching.

Kaplan’s thorough, detailed, exhaustive examination of the state of workplace monitoring — and the impacts it has on us all — is really worth digging through. The art of measurement, of big data, combined with the insistence on making every efficiency possible, means that we are living in a very strange society… even if we don’t realize it.

In terms of the writing, it’s not the most exciting read — it’s straight, unemotional in that way that complicated stories can sometimes be — but it is still, somehow, exciting to read. Maybe it’s because it’s reported to within an inch of its life, or perhaps it’s that it has that quality of making everything around you feel slightly different, forever.

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