Are organisations turning humans into machines?
In the pursuit of performance and productivity, organisations may be encouraging humans to turn into machines. And with the pressure of not being able to keep up and the fear of being replaced by them, employees may be accepting to venture into a dangerous, slippery path of acceptance of constant pressure, surveillance and overwork. A friend of mine compared this to modern slavery. Even if one does not go that far, it is certainly a matter of deep concern. It is clear that rethinking our work terms and environments is becoming a pressing issue.
Today, more and more organisations, especially large groups with employees across the world, are relying purely on IT metrics to measure the performance of their employees. They are adamant that technology will provide better control mechanisms. While this may be true, there is also the risk of deviating into unwanted practices. Even with the best of intentions, if the human element is not taken into account these metrics are bound to be biased.
Problems we need to reflect upon:
- I have often heard: “Trust does not prevent control”. I agree. However, control needs to be conducted in a proper way. In some cases, the metrics themselves are very intrusive and employees feel that the “big brother” is watching them, which may be cause for demotivation. Micromanagement by a machine is no better than that by one’s manager.
- The cultural context of a country may account for different results for the same metrics. Wanting to uniformly apply the same way of working throughout the world simply does not work because people don’t react and interact the same way everywhere. One needs to adapt to the local culture. Not adapting to local culture can be counterproductive.
- Metrics alone cannot tell if an employee is underperforming or not. So many factors need to be taken into account. You won’t have the whole story. The employee may be performing but not entering all the information required to determine his or her proper level of performance. Because he or she is focusing on delivering. These days, employees feel they spend more time entering information for metrics that determine their own performance than doing their actual work to get results. Precious time is lost in administrative tasks.
- Metrics don’t leave room for creativity. While technically machines can be creative by generating art (so-called “computer-generated art” or “algorithmic art”), when it comes to humans, having someone or something on one’s back is rarely conducive of creativity.
It is also worth noting this paradox: unlimited paid time off is becoming the norm in some big organisations. They take pride in promoting work-life balance and say it is an essential part of their philosophy. However, this seems to be a gross exaggeration when the quantity of work each employee is being asked to handle is way above what is humanly possible to address, leaving no time to actually take that time off.
This means humans unconsciously either need to turn into machines to keep up and eventually burn out (the burn out rate may vary a lot from one individual to another) or really live the work-life balance and feel guilty, risk underperformance and down the line being fired.
It is only when more and more people feel pressured and leave these types of organisations to preserve their health, that the management will begin questioning their practices with possibly a culture change.
Organisations need to be aware of the negative psychological effects that may be caused by an elusive imperative and ensure they don’t encourage people to turn into machines or alternatively rage against the machine.
As an organisation, you may wish to ensure you are:
- coherent and, if necessary, rethink your metrics to measure performance while taking into account the human element as well as the work-life balance philosophy you wish to uphold.
- open-minded and are able to leave room for certain practices to be adapted in other parts of the world to foster better results.
- not too intrusive to avoid nipping much needed creativity in the bud.