retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kevin Coupe

In Ireland, the Independent reports that Tesco is forcing employees to "wear electronic armbands that managers can use to grade how hard they are working ... The armbands are worn by warehouse staff and forklift drivers, who use them to scan the stock they collect from supermarket distribution points and send it out for delivery."

However, one person's efficiency is another person's intrusive behavior.

While "Tesco said the armbands are used to improve efficiency and save its staff from having to carry around pens and paper to keep track of deliveries," a former staffer says that managers are using them "to keep an eye on employees’ work rates."

What is interesting to me about this story is that it really is about one of those issues that are a product of our 21st century, technology-driven culture. People can wax rhapsodic about the notion of wearable technology - I've done it myself, most recently about the concept of an iWatch - that will allow us all to be more connected, more effective, more efficient, breezing through life as if with an EZ-Pass strapped to our foreheads, an iPod implanted behind our ears and a computer/TV screen wired into our eyeballs. No muss, no fuss.

Except that being so wired does mean that not only do we move through life with greater ease, but people and organizations are able to track us with greater facility. Fact of life. And we have to think about whether these trade-offs are worth it.

I, for one, would be loathe to give up my E-=Z Pass, even though I know my movements can be tracked and used against me. (It seems like every fourth episode of "Law & Order" used this as a plot point.) But since I don't plan to go anywhere or do anything that will end with me in court, I'm okay with that.

However, if I had an employer who gave me a wristband - or even a smart card of some sort - that would, in exchange for making me more efficient, allow them to track my every movement, how would I react to this? Not well. I recognize that this may be within an employer's rights, but it would be enough to make me want to find another employer.

I also recognize, though, that this is easy for me to say ... I've spent most of the past two decades seeking professional autonomy, have achieved it to some extent, and so I'm not really worried about it. But if I were working in a store, a warehouse or a factory, and this were foisted upon me, I might not have options.

In the end, I think, employers need to understand that just being able to track people for efficiency's sake is not some sort of panacea. You may know more, but you've also created a climate of distrust. You've turned that employee into a commodity, when he or she could have been an asset. And their investment in making the business successful will be lessened.

But I also understand that in cutthroat businesses, the opposite argument can be made. (I don't agree with it, but I understand it.)

These are tough questions, without easy answers. But they will continue to pop up, as technology continues to advance.

Our eyes - and our minds - have to remain open.
KC's View: