Is it fair to try to treat people as if they were part of an electronic system? The NYT has a disturbing article on the effects of computer optimization and big data on the workforce in the retail industry. People are more called at the last minute by ”the software” to do shifts that have been calculated depending on the weather, and optimized to reduce costs:
If the mercury is going to hit 95 the next day, the software will suggest scheduling more employees based on the historic increase in store traffic in hot weather. [...] The [employee scheduling] program breaks down schedules into 15-minute increments. So if the lunchtime rush at a particular shop slows down at 1:45, the software may suggest cutting 15 minutes from the shift of an employee normally scheduled from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
[...] the scheduling software “helped us take 400, 500 basis points out of our labor costs,” or 4 to 5 percentage points, a savings of millions of dollars a year. The software keeps tabs on when workers are available, their skills and who makes the most sales per hour.
The result is that everybody works part time, flexible, unpredictable shifts. And who wins in the end? The stores of course. People who work 6h are more effective than those who work 8.
Mr. Flickinger, the retail consultant, said companies benefited from using many part-timers. “It’s almost like sharecropping — if you have a lot of farmers with small plots of land, they work very hard to produce in that limited amount of land,” he said. “Many part-time workers feel a real competition to work hard during their limited hours because they want to impress managers to give them more hours.”
Ms. Rosser, the Jamba Juice district manager, amplified on the advantages.“You don’t want to work your team members for eight-hour shifts,” she said. “By the time they get to the second half of their shift, they don’t have the same energy and enthusiasm. We like to schedule people around four- to five-hour shifts so you can get the best out of them during that time.”
What we have here is another case of businesses putting their computers interests ahead of their workforce’s interests. Humans have to adapt to the algorithms, not the other way around. I wonder how far this can go. Would you rather have a struggling to survive, secretly unhappy but optimized workforce, or people who love their jobs, are energetic but cost you 15m of extra time here and there?
This appears to me as short term thinking. Results will go up in the early years as the result of computer optimization, then they will decrease as good workers (those with options) avoid those particular stores, and clients start to be turned off by a poisonous atmosphere.
I’m constantly amazed by how much algorithms are governing our lives. On this very topic, check Kevin Slavin’s talk at Lift, a real masterpiece.