Greatra Mayana

Career & Employment Opportunities

The In-House Ethicist: Will app-based employment make workers easier to manipulate?

(rhythmic drum beats) – Human beings, they’re kind of annoying, aren’t they? Making their own choices, doing the things they want to do, the way they want to do them (scoffs), on their own timetables. Most times, they don’t even
ask you for your opinion, as if you didn’t have
any say in the matter. Sheesh! I bet this guy
doesn’t have that problem. People listen to everything he says. They do just want he wants, when he wants, the way he wants. Poohoo! Supreme leader,
I guess that’s the price of living in a free society. Whatever. So what do you do about people? Especially the people who work for you: your employees, the people you manage. You know what you want them to do; you probably know the way
you want them to do it. But how do you get them, well, to cooperate? To follow orders—and not being fussy or dragging their feet,
but to be happy about it? Almost like they were
your own very puppet. And you were their Geppetto. Solving this problem was the life’s work of this man: Frederick Winslow Taylor. Taylor was a business professor, a mechanical engineer, and
a man unafraid to sport wing-tip collars. He was also a key figure in what was known as the efficiency movement, an effort at the beginning
of the 20th century to reduce waste and
improve economic growth by implementing practices
that would streamline industrial production. Taylor’s most important contribution is this book, “The Principles
of Scientific Management,” a work that is now regarded
as the foundational text of management consulting. As Taylor says in the book, “The responsibility of a good manager “is to make a study of how different tasks “in the workplace should be done.” The goal, he said, is to create many rules, laws, and formulas, which
replace the judgment of the individual workman. But that’s not all. It wasn’t only that scientific management aimed to rid workers of the pesky need of having to figure out
things for themselves; they didn’t even need to know why they were doing what they were doing. They merely needed to
do what they were told, for the science of
management could only succeed if workers followed instructions with—and these are Taylor’s
words—”absolute uniformity.” Fair enough, but saying you
want absolute uniformity in the execution of
some task and getting it are two very different things. When I was a child, my
mother was very clear she wanted absolute uniformity when I made my bed in the morning. But that didn’t mean that little John Paul ever mastered the art of hospital corners. Taylor knew this, which is why he talked a lot
about monetary incentives. He knew that few people
swooned at the idea of making 71 and 1/3 widgets each day. But if you offer them enough
money for their efforts, they might just undertake them with something that approximates
absolute uniformity. Still, this was something
of a last best option: if people only did what
you wanted them to do because you were paying them money, they tended to be half-hearted in their efforts. And if you didn’t watch them closely, chances are they would try to cheat the system. Accordingly, a central part of
the science of the workplace was to bring about what Taylor
called “a complete change “in the mental attitude of employees.” “Managers,” he said, “needed to understand the
motives which influence men “and to harness them in favor
of the work at hand.” Another way of putting this is that if money is an exterior motivation, the science of the workplace
could only be perfected when the need to get the
job done was in here. The drive had to come from within. Now, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that so much of the study of management throughout the 20th century involved finding new ways
of motivating workers beyond simply giving them more money. If you’ve ever worn a 10-gallon hat to the office, done a trust fall with your boss, or sung “Rocket Man” on a work cruise, you’ve engaged in some of the
clumsier attempts to create that sense of inner motivation, that buzz buzz that makes you
a happy little worker bee. Now we can all laugh at these efforts, in part because they’re
a little ridiculous. But also because they’re patently obvious. We know what our bosses are doing to us, and oftentimes, we are
willing collaborators. But what about attempts to motivate us that are little less obvious, that go on without our
even being aware of it? Take the case of Uber. As Noam Scheiber of the
“New York Times” has reported, in the last few years,
the ride-sharing service has drawn on the insights
of behavioral science and video-game technology to solve the problem of getting drivers to drive whenever they need them on the road. This not withstanding the fact that a central part of Uber’s pitch is that drivers can work
on their own schedules. For example, as Scheiber reports, Uber tweaked the algorithm
on the app drivers use to automatically queue up new rides before the current ones have finished. The behavioral insight is the same one that streaming services rely on. For just as Netflix
knows that no sane person decides to spend a Sunday afternoon watching 11 episodes of
“Sabrina the Teenage Witch,” if the Uber app is always prompting you to
do just one more pickup, you’ll quickly find
yourself binge driving. Another change Uber made is to take advantage of the human affinity for goal setting. The app was redesigned to
constantly update drivers on how close they are
to reaching certain arbitrary sums, or to matching the number
of rides they’ve done the previous weeks. At the time, drivers are also given a
steady stream of encouragement from real-time feedback,
to badges they can earn from passengers, to virtual pats on the back
from Uber high command. The insight is simple: a
few words of encouragement can be a powerful motivator
to keep us working hard— even when they come from
the disembodied voice of some distant authority. Right boss? – [Boss]: You bet, John Paul! – Gee, thanks – [Boss]: Just one more minute now. – You got it. Now, to be sure, businesses have been using
these kinds of tricks for decades. But with technology that now allows us not only to gather and
assess fine-grained data on the performance of
each and every worker, but to use that data to tailor the encouragement we give them, we are increasingly
able to ensure the goal of absolute uniformity. Companies are able to get what they want from their employees
the way they want it, without ever having to
look over their shoulders. Make no mistake. This is what
the future of work looks like. With continuing
technological developments, advanced insights into behavioral science, and the capacity to
harbor and deploy big data in the years to come, the ability of companies
to shape the activity of the workplace in favor of
efficiency and productivity will only continue to grow. They will only become more proficient in assembling the strings that will make you their Pinocchio. Now, of course, this was the dream of Frederick Winslow Taylor, the high priest of scientific management. But should it be yours? That may depend on how
much you value free will and individual agency— or maybe where you think you’ll end up in the company hierarchy. Will you be acting
with absolute uniformity according to the wishes
of some supreme leader? Or do you think you’ll effectively be one?

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