Amazon steps up staff surveillance: How will it impact employee experience - and CX?

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As Amazon announces patents to increase the tracking of its staff, Colin Shaw wonders how it will impact the employee experience at a company that already has a dubious record of staff engagement - and how it could ultimately influence the customer experience. 

Amazon has submitted two patents for wristbands that can track the moment-by-moment actions of their warehouse workers. Amazon has not said whether they will use the technology in their warehouses but stated if they did, they would be used to improve the process for their employees.

However, anyone who has ever read George Orwell’s 1984 or suffered the scrutiny of a micro-manager will have a healthy dose of doubt that a wristband that reports back the nitty-gritty details about productivity will improve anything for them.

The patents, from the United States Patent and Trademark Office, describe the wristbands as “Ultrasonic tracking of a worker’s hands may be used to monitor performance of assigned tasks.” Worn on the wrist, the bands will transmit periodic ultrasonic sound pulses to a receiver. These pulses will reveal which bin the worker was near.  Amazon would not say whether they are going to manufacture them or use them. (To see the patent, and the related diagrams, please click here.)

Since the announcement on February 1st, there has been much speculation about how Amazon would use the data—and more than a few concerns about employee privacy rights. Most note that Amazon would know how fast (or slow) associates performed tasks and even how often (and how long) they took bathroom breaks.

Employee experience at Amazon has a bad reputation. An article in the NY Times two years ago painted a bleak picture of life for white-collar workers on campus in Seattle. The warehouse has its share of strife also. Last year on Black Friday, 500 workers went on strike in Italy, and other strikes occured in Germany.

In my opinion, these claims of workplace strife are overblown. It would be highly unusual for a company that provides the excellent Customer Experience that Amazon does to have such a terrible work environment for those people that offer that excellent experience.

Critics of the wristbands posit that the wristbands are a tactic to squeeze all the productivity they can out of “human robots” until Amazon can replace them with actual robots. Again, I wouldn’t go that far. That said, Amazon is known for using robots where they can, working toward unmanned aerial vehicles (drone) delivery, and eliminating human cashiers at their Amazon Go convenience stores.  

It is clear that Amazon sees value in automation and intends to have many human-free Customer Experiences. Who can argue that getting rid of the humans might eliminate some of the problems former employees have complained about at Amazon. After all, robots don’t cry at their desks or have to do annoying things like take breaks or sleep at night.

How important is workplace privacy?

Wherever you land on the Amazon toxic workplace argument, and the wristband that may or may not be worn by their warehouse workers raises thought-provoking questions about workplace privacy. Questions like, do we have any?

Workplace privacy laws have been enacted at a state level throughout the U.S. and in the U.K., as part of the government. They are designed to define the limits of what employers can monitor employees. From what employee emails they can read to how much social media access employers are entitled to website usage on company equipment, and even whether an employer can order a polygraph, the government works to help draw the lines of what is fair game and what isn’t.

To read more about some of these areas, please click here.(And, after you read that, go clear your search history on the work computer and get a separate mobile for personal use!)

How employee experience dictates customer experience

So, what does all this mean to the employee experience and, perhaps more importantly, why should you care? As far as the employee experience, it all comes down to feelings. Specifically, the possible Big Brother wristbands bring to the fore the issue of how employees feel about the methods employers use to improve processes and productivity.

When you hear that your company can monitor what internet sites you go to and for how long during work hours, how does that make you feel? Many of you are probably hacked off about it (the ones that have something to hide, I would wager!).

Whatever you feel about your work environment affects how you behave at work. Your emotions guide your actions and decision-making. So, for example, if you feel like your employer is spying on you, then you are likely not to trust them.

Some of you might be indifferent (the ones that think they do not have anything to hide). A few of you might be proud to work for such a forward-thinking and tech-savvy company. Maybe you have a different feeling altogether. Whatever your answer is, the emotion you feel affects how you perceive your employer.

Whatever you feel about your work environment affects how you behave at work. Your emotions guide your actions and decision-making. So, for example, if you feel like your employer is spying on you, then you are likely not to trust them. Relationships not built on trust tend to take an adversarial turn— not the most productive working environment. On the other hand, if you feel like you work for a forward-thinking, tech-savvy company, you might feel proud to be a part of the team. Relationships built on pride and teamwork tend to be productive and rewarding.

Emotions are a crucial influence on the outcome of any experience, work or otherwise. That’s why it is vital to know how the experience you provide makes people feel. Workplace emotions can make a huge difference in your customer experience, for good or ill.  I often say that happy employees make happy customers. Can you guess what kind of customers unhappy employees make?

How to avoid employee experience mistakes

One of the big mistakes organizations make regarding their employee experience and customer experience is not combining them and making them complementary. The experience you give your customers is the same experience you should give your employees. So, if you want customer to feel like they can trust your company, you also need to ensure that employees feel like they can trust the company, too. Employees will feel empowered to do what it takes to make customers trust them.

Amazon has done an excellent job providing an outstanding customer experience thus far. They have gone to great lengths to expand their services while surprising and delighting customers along the way. However, they have suffered much criticism for how they drive employees to provide that experience. This past criticism is probably why they are tight-lipped about how (or if) the wristbands will be used.

I would have Amazon management consider how employees feel about wearing a wristband that reported back data on their performance. Managing that answer to a positive emotion that contributes to employee engagement and a productive work environment should be Amazon —and any other employers’—prime concern.

What do you think? Are the concerns about wristbands overblown or are they the Orwellian tools we all should deride and fear? We’d all love to hear your take on the situation in the comments below.

About Colin Shaw

Colin Shaw

 Colin Shaw is founder & CEO of Beyond Philosophy, one of worlds first organizations devoted to customer experience. Colin is an international author of six best-selling books. Beyond Philosophy has a proven track record. They provide consulting, specialised research & training from Sarasota, Florida and London, England. Follow Colin Shaw on Twitter @ColinShaw_CX

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By NickT
13th Mar 2018 11:14

A great discussion Colin. For us at ENGAGE, the root of the issue here is not the technology itself but the message of trust and individual responsibility that it sends out.

Trust and employee engagement in the workplace is already well understood. Trust is a critical factor for leaders – we may know where we are going and how we are getting there, but if we don’t trust those who are telling us this then all bets are off. Likewise, employees need to be trusted to do their jobs. The very best managers achieve a balance of clear performance management while allowing their teams to do their jobs in the ways they see best.

This is especially important when it comes down to providing exceptional customer service. The best companies know that giving employees autonomy to go outside of the rule book every now and again both delights customers and goes a long way to delighting employees themselves as well.

In some environments, technology which controls day to day movements may be very positive: algorithms which create the most efficient routes between multiple drop-off points are already commonplace in logistics, saving time and fuel. Start applying these to the ways employees choose to do their jobs however and we may be facing a whole new problem.

If engagement is so critical to individual and organisational success, and a key measure of business performance, we need to be very wary of the impact that control technologies can have. There is a delicate balance between performance and wellbeing, and businesses that undermine this by removing the fundamental building blocks of employee trust will have much tougher issues to face than simply lower engagement levels.

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14th Jul 2018 07:00

Employees are bound to step up their game because they know their every action is being monitored. Though they are obviously faking their daily performance, at least they are contributing a great lot towards their company's well-being. They would require a huge amount of data storage though to ensure all the surveillance footage gets stored since there are many employees and there are many days about to come. The company is obviously trying to increase customer experience at the expense of their own employees' experience.

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23rd Jul 2018 07:17

When companies get big, it becomes more difficult to manage what your employees are doing and for that you rely on better managers in the operation centres, or surveillance. But at least Amazon is showing commitment to ensure that there's a level of quality in the service that they provide. There's a lot more to be said about how other businesses are generally handling their own levels of quality control you know!

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