The Rise of Workplace Automation: 10 Shocking Facts: Background information when reading On the Clock

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On the Clock

What Low-Wage Work Did to Me and How It Drives America Insane

by Emily Guendelsberger

On the Clock by Emily Guendelsberger X
On the Clock by Emily Guendelsberger
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  • First Published:
    Jul 2019, 352 pages

    Jul 2020, 352 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Tara Mcnabb
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About this Book

The Rise of Workplace Automation: 10 Shocking Facts

This article relates to On the Clock

Print Review

On the ClockIt's no secret that rapid innovations in technology have drastically changed the way we work. But are these changes always for the better? Here are 10 shocking facts about the rise of automation in the workplace, taken directly from the pages of Emily Guendelsberger's On The Clock.

  1. According to a 2013 study from Oxford University, 47 percent of the U.S. workforce is at risk of being replaced by computers or robots.
  2. Despite the integration of technology at work, job satisfaction in America is at an all-time low: according to a recent study by the Harvard Business Review and the Energy Project, only 37 percent of American workers feel content with their jobs.
  3. According to Robert Walker of the Center on Drug and Alcohol Research at the University of Kentucky, low-skill repetitive jobs that require employees to interact heavily with automation technology have been shown to increase feelings of helplessness and lack of control, which have been linked to various health problems such as addiction, depression and obesity.
  4. The majority of schedules in low-wage jobs are now based on algorithmic computer systems that predict how much business a store might get every week. Because this can vary widely, worker's schedules change from week to week and are often finalized only one or two days in advance, making it difficult for working parents to plan ahead.
  5. It's common practice for employers to chronically understaff in order to prevent employees from being idle on the job; an example of this is a Walmart staffing policy that only gives managers enough labor in each store to maintain a skeleton crew, thereby ensuring that workers are always frantically trying to keep up with the unbalanced workload.
  6. Amazon bought a robotics company called Kiva Systems in 2012 for $775 million. Kiva Systems specializes in automating the picking and packing process in warehouses; the company's robots retrieve ordered goods and ship them in mere minutes. Because they are much more efficient than humans, they might displace thousands of workers and leave large sectors of Amazon's workforce unemployed.
  7. At Amazon, scan guns are equipped with GPS tracking to monitor the location of employees, and pickers are required to have their scan gun with them at all times—even in the bathroom.
  8. The call-center industry has an overwhelming 70 percent annual turnover rate according to the author's research. This is undoubtedly due to the high-stress environment and unrealistic standards prevalent in the industry as a whole.
  9. Cogito, software that monitors a call-center employee's tone of voice, notifies the worker when their voice starts to sound tired. It can also listen to and track the pace and pattern of calls.
  10. At McDonald's, employees are pressured to mimic the robotic nature of machines by completing tasks in the allotted target time, which breaks down each step to a matter of seconds. For example, when it comes to assembling a hamburger, the "target order display screen reaction time" is five seconds; the "target sandwich assembly time" is 22 seconds; and so on.

Based on these alone, it's clear that the image of, say, a cheerful fast food worker leisurely flipping burgers, is grossly inaccurate. Not only that, it's damaging to the workers themselves who are still unfairly dismissed as having the "easy jobs" because the work is inherently less skilled. While it's true that low-wage work typically does not require a college degree or a specialized area of expertise, assuming that it's a walk in the park is an injustice to the millions of people who struggle to keep up with the insatiable demands of technology in order to put food on the table.

These troubling statistics also make clear that the unstoppable march of technology is becoming all too real for many working-class communities. Automation threatens working peoples' jobs, and invasive monitoring equipment creates high-pressure work environments where no one feels safe to ever relax. If the work practices discussed in On The Clock continue to spread unchecked, mass unemployment and hyper-stressful workplaces might soon become commonplace.

Photo of Amazon factory courtesy of Álvaro Ibáñez from Madrid, Spain

Filed under Medicine, Science and Tech

Article by Tara Mcnabb

This "beyond the book article" relates to On the Clock. It originally ran in September 2019 and has been updated for the July 2020 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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