The last couple of times I passed by the TV to see what the kids were watching, I was surprised not to see Spongebob Squarepants or the Yankee game (Michael and Grace have their separate interests, but they usually can agree on something, at least in the short term). Anyway, they happened to be intently watching the Food Network show Restaurant Stakeout. You may know the show – Willie Degel, host and restaurateur, uses a myriad of cameras to monitor how restaurant owners run their businesses in order to critique their management styles and hopefully improve their businesses. I sat down to watch.
Mr. Degel is no doubt an exciting and informative host, but it was not his management advice (which may have been very good) that kept me watching. The level of monitoring employed by the show is indicative of the growing level of surveillance going on at workplaces across the country. But as the New York Times reported on Saturday, and as we have reported previously, monitoring is not limited to fancy cameras tilting and panning. According to the Times’ story, through complex workplace analytics
companies have found, for example, that workers are more productive if they have more social interaction. So a bank’s call center introduced a shared 15-minute coffee break, and a pharmaceutical company replaced coffee makers used by a few marketing workers with a larger cafe area. The result? Increased sales and less turnover.
Of course, privacy and data security concerns exist, but there generally are few current insurmountable legal obstacles in most of the United States if proper steps are taken, such as notifying employees and customers, and managing the data carefully. Still, many may have an uncomfortable feeling about this level of monitoring, although the Times report about restaurant servers didn’t say the servers quit. Instead those that knew “they were being monitored, pushed customers to have that dessert or a second beer, which resulted in the increased revenue for the restaurant and tips for themselves.”
Saying there are few legal obstacles may be a bit premature, however, as courts often struggle to keep pace with technology. How decisions are made concerning employees (and applicants) with vast amounts of data acquired through such monitoring and analytics could be a significant area of legal risk. Our prior report highlighted some others. Clearly, companies need to be prudent when deciding whether and how to implement such technologies, but they need not run from them as the opportunity costs and other costs for not adopting and learning from these technologies can be far greater than the costs or exposures incurred from adopting them.
These software marvels that track and analyze all aspects of a workplace to find those who are most productive, or how to make those less productive more productive, may soon have a dramatic impact on the workplace. And, it’s unclear whether they will replace the experience and grit of the Willie Degels of the world, but both my kids and I hope they don’t!