Work Face Signals

Imagine that a firm required its employees to be constantly monitored by the new rapidly-improving techs for reading face/body/voice tones. Employees must also wear body sensors to measure their heart rate, skin sweat, etc., to further read their mood and emotions. This firm argues that this will let them better measure who is working how hard, who is really engaged in their work, etc. Are you outraged? Will laws be passed to stop this?

Now consider how much we now waste on commuting, so firms can monitor employees better via face-to-face interactions:

Americans spend a ton of time commuting. According to happiness researchers, commuting is the low point of the typical day. If you look at the jobs that people actually do, though, it’s hard to understand why so many workers continue to commute. Given a computer and high-speed Internet, most desk jobs could now be done from home – or so it seems. Telecommuting wouldn’t just save workers time, frustration, and fuel; it would also let firms drastically reduce their overhead – and pass the savings along to their customers. … [Alas,] workers physically commute for signaling reasons. Employers can monitor your productivity better when you actually come to the office. Workers who telecommute put themselves on the slow track to success – if they can even get hired in the first place. (more)

Not outraged by this? The added cost of the tone readers is far less than the added cost of commuting. So if you think the value of the signals found by seeing people face to face is worth the huge added cost of commuting, how can you object to getting even more info at a far lower added cost?

This seems to me an obvious example of a status quo bias. Because face-to-face monitoring has long been the status quo, it seems ok. But adding tone monitors and body sensors would be new, so they are horrible intrusions on our natural privacy.

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as: ,
Trackback URL:
  • http://www.facebook.com/tedsanders Ted Sanders

    As someone who has worked at home, I disagree.

    Working at home is hard because it’s easier to get distracted. This is because distractions are more common, habitual, and less norm-violating.

    • Tyrrell McAllister

       

      distractions are more common, habitual, and less norm-violating.

      All of which would be less the case under the monitoring regime that Robin is describing.

    • Russell Wallace

      That depends on the individual, as well as on the setup at the office and at home. (Bear in mind that you are much more likely to be able to improve the latter than the former.) I find working at home markedly more productive.

  • Sid

    Because face-to-face monitoring has been around for so long, we have evolved well-developed counter-measures (such as politeness, dress codes, hiding emotions etc.). The outrage against body-monitoring tech is may be due to us having no counter-measures to that kind of intrusion. Of course, if these techs are brought in gradually, counter-measures might evolve. 

    • Jokah Macpherson

      This is the best explanation of the outrage.  Face-to-face interaction allows you to signal hard work without having to work much harder.

      • Davidleothomas

         Honestly, this could be an improvement.  If I’ve been demonstrably working hard for some time and my productivity is falling off, I can show that I need a break and take it without worrying what I’m signalling.  If I need to socially demonstrate hard work, I need to stay hunched over my computer even when I’m not being very effective.  In the right social and organizational framework, that’s a deal I’d happily take; in the wrong one, it gets ugly fast, however…

    • http://bur.sk/ Viliam Búr

      Even if you had a tech defense against tech monitoring, your working contract would probably forbid you from using it at work. And if it would be invisible, employees would be randomly tested.

      The advantage of the natural defense is precisely that you have no option to remove it.

      • http://profiles.google.com/johnthacker John Thacker

         The problem is that some people are much better at those sorts of “natural defenses” than others. Now in some jobs, those natural defenses are related to useful work skills. But in others they aren’t.

  • Mark M

    I assume that several states would prohibit firing anyone and/or making salary decisions based on biometric monitoring.  Although the monitoring would not strictly be prohibited, companies would avoid biometric monitoring to avoid the appearance of violating those laws. 

    This is very similar to why you are never asked about your family or health in job interviews.  There is no law that prohibits those questions, but there are laws that prohibit using that information to make hiring decisions.  Asking those questions during interviews may make it appear as though it’s relevant to the hiring decision.

    In any case, employees should be measured by their work output, not their mood and heart rate.  The desire to monitor employees so closely indicates a failure to effectively measure work product.

  • John

    ” This seems to me an obvious example of a status quo bias. Because
    face-to-face monitoring has long been the status quo, it seems ok. But
    adding tone monitors and body sensors would be new, so they are horrible
    intrusions on our natural privacy.”

    It has nothing to do with status quo bias and everything to do with the fact that such monitoring would reveal things about you that not only are irrelevant for your employer but are deeply personal. The question is do you have a right to privacy and redefining the question as one about efficiency is truly moronic.

    If you are so into efficiency of signalling, do you agree that after we understand human DNA, people should just wear tags with stats about their “genetic quality” (or, better yet, a Facebook – like database) so that dating and mating can be more efficient?

    I am really looking forward to you fully revealing your positions on these issues so that the normal part of your audience finally realizes the moral repugnance of the opinions you and other utilitarians have.

    • Vaniver

       “The question is do you have a right to privacy and redefining the question as one about efficiency is truly moronic.”

      All rights exist insofar as they are efficient.

      • John

         Not true. The whole concept of human rights has tremendous inefficiencies and ambiguities built into it. Besides, eficiency is all about rationality (and not emotional ‘reasoning’), whereas rights have always been (and, I hope, always will be) mostly about our emotions and the way we feel about a certain issue.

    • M Cyrax

      “If you are so into efficiency of signalling, do you agree that after we understand human DNA, people should just wear tags with stats about their “genetic quality” (or, better yet, a Facebook – like database) so that dating and mating can be more efficient?”
      Humans already do try to signal genetic quality. Why do you suppose men strive for fame and fortune and women thrown on make-up and heels? Genetic quality isn’t opaque as it is. Boils down to whether you think it’s a difference of degree or kind.

      I dislike your sanctimony, but I agree with: “such monitoring would reveal things about you that not only are irrelevant for your employer but are deeply personal.”

      • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_WWKNK6TCFZ4NVZJ3B7JIOHKO5M Anto

        Status quo sexual roles.
        But now women and men both strive for looks and fame, at least much more.
        I will not throw my points on how cooperation is preferable to competition, but our instincts need to be reinvented and stimulated, obviously, they can’t be censored, they exist.
        Some say they can’t be reinvented, true about the quality and nature of instincual stimulus, but the cause for these stimuli and our interpretation really adapt to the context, so no fixed and monolitic natural selection.

    • Strange7person

      Unfortunately, for that very reason he likely never will.

    • http://profiles.google.com/johnthacker John Thacker

      “It has nothing to do with status quo bias and everything to do with the fact that such monitoring would reveal things about you that not only are irrelevant for your employer but are deeply personal.”

      I argue that face-to-face interaction does that as well. Some people are better at hiding their responses in face-to-face interaction, but many people are forced to reveal irrelevant personal details by being forced into face-to-face interaction.

      I think that you’re begging the question here. The point, to me, is not whether the sort of electronic measurement is a good thing, but why we treat the electronic measurement so differently from face to face interaction that accomplishes most of the same things (but far more expensively.)

      Who are you to tell other people that face-to-face monitoring isn’t personal?

      • John

        “I think that you’re begging the question here. The point, to me, is not
        whether the sort of electronic measurement is a good thing, but why we
        treat the electronic measurement so differently from face to face
        interaction that accomplishes most of the same things (but far more
        expensively.)”

        It is not begging the question at all. If this is indeed bad, you would not want more of it.

        There
        is also a categorical difference. Face-to-face interaction indeed
        reveals some things about you, but you have a relatively high level of
        control over what the other person learns about you. Since these sort of
        technologies will scan for things that are not in your voluntary
        control and you can do nothing to prevent them from occuring, there is a
        clear categorical difference between these two types of signaling.

        Also,
        face-to-face interaction is natural, unlike technologically mediated
        face data mining. I know most of the readers of this blog despise nature
        and their own humanness (“homo hypocritus”? Really?), but there are
        enough of us for whom this is a big enough issue. You will not be able
        to just swipe those concerns under the carpet with “it is essentially
        the same”. It is not.

  • Eric Hammer

    My experience with telecommuting is that people largely forget you exist when you work from home. Not being a physical presence in the office vastly reduced the amount of random requests to do other people’s work for them. I suspect the other side of the coin is that not being present means those who would need to be aware of you for promotion are also unaware of you.

    I suspect the biggest impediment to letting people work from home is the fact that most corporate work is not production focused but maintenance or busy work. Since most people are not really judged on output that can be measured, it is very easy to simply do enough to fly under the radar. It is somewhat easier to do that at home than at the office, since most people forget you exist. Cut out the bureaucratic waste and you would probably greatly enhance the popularity of allowing people to work from home, or at least out sourcing, which is basically the same thing.

  • Ernest

    I disagree that the sole function of being present at work is monitoring.  Plenty of research suggests that there is a lot to be gained from being in close proximity to other workers.  Ideas and breakthroughs are shared and incorporated into each others work and so forth.  Also, on any kind of team based project, teams grow closer together and there are efficiency gains. This can’t be done using a purely monitoring solution.

    • newqueuelure

      I agree that the sole function is not monitoring … It is more like agglomeration. There are benefits from e.g. a bunch of defense contractors being near each other and the Pentagon that have nothing to do with monitoring. In fact, no one from Northop Grumman actually can monitor employees from Lockheed Martin, yet there is a benefit.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economies_of_agglomeration 

  • Esnible

    Can we trust that commuting is actually the low point of the day?  Thirty minutes in a car, given a task simple yet mentally engaging?  After my daughter was born my commute was the only time during the day that quiet thinking was possible.

    Is it not possible that the commute serves as a cognitive replacement for prayer or mediation?  Note how people will gladly give up a 25 minute commute in stop-and-go traffic for a 45 minute commute on open road.

    • Sister Y

      Commuting Paradox: http://www.econstor.eu/bitstream/10419/20544/1/dp1278.pdf 

      “…we find that people with longer commuting time report systematically lower subjective well-being. Additional empirical analyses do not find institutional explanations of the empirical results that commuters systematically incur losses.”

      • Weaver

         Perhaps long commuters are simply poorer and have lower cost of time…

      • Sister Y

        In the sample, income correlates positively with commuting time, and also the study re-surveys individuals over time as their commuting times change.

    • anon

      “Can
      we trust that commuting is actually the low point of the day?  Thirty
      minutes in a car, given a task simple yet mentally engaging?”Lots of people use taking a bowel movement as an opportunity for “quiet, alone time”.  This does not exclude a similar purpose for commuting, but it does mean that it’s not in any sense a unique opportunity–if anything, sitting in a restroom is more relaxing than having to pay attention to traffic.

  • Will

    One difference that should not be ignored: Face-to-face monitoring also lets you monitor the person who is monitoring you. This lowers the amount of dominance, which people obviously hate, that occurs.

  • Weaver

    I can convincingly spoof the tone readers by doing my personal portfolio analysis on my desk…. all I need is work of equivalent complexity to evoke a the same physiological response.

    Or perhaps Halo 4 would be just as good 🙂

  • Tim Tyler

    ODesk already regularly monitors hourly workers – via screen snapshots…

  • athelas314

    In general, people are extremely wary of technology that upsets the delicate balance of signaling and deception that we’ve evolved to engage in socially.  By contrast, the cost of commuting is not evolutionarily novel.  It’s not about efficiency or status quo bias; it’s about our aversion to fiddle with anything that might affect homo hypocritus.

    As a rule of thumb, any innovation that enables the relatively socially inept to become more socially ept or perceptive, will be violently reacted against. Certainly body language readers, which extend the ability of distant bosses to keep accurate tabs on your social cues, fall into this category.

    • Wallace Reed

      With this I don’t agree

  • Vladimir

    This seems to me an obvious example of a status quo bias. Because face-to-face monitoring has long been the status quo, it seems ok. But adding tone monitors and body sensors would be new, so they are horrible intrusions on our natural privacy.
    Sometimes the status quo bias leads to even stranger situations where, by some historical accident, one thing is considered business as usual and another unthinkably horrible, even though their relevant aspects are the same. 

    Consider for example the idea that the government should make it mandatory for everyone to carry identification papers while walking in public places, and have the police stop people randomly for paper checks. In the U.S., this would be seen as unacceptably intrusive, practically totalitarian. If you added the requirement that people must have their government-issued ID numbers prominently displayed on their clothing, it would sound like some nightmare dystopia. Yet with cars, this very system has been in place for many decades, and it’s seen as an unremarkable fact of life. 

    To make it even more curious, the idea of mandatory ID and paper checks for pedestrians would probably be resisted in the U.S. more than anywhere else — while at the same time, it’s a country where driving is more akin to walking than probably anywhere else. (In that it’s hard to find many other places where it’s so difficult, and in most of the country practically impossible, to go anywhere without a car, so regulations that apply to your driving are much like equivalent regulations that would apply to your walking in less car-centric places.) 

    • Strange7person

      So, you’d say driving doesn’t require any particular skill or carry any dangers beyond being a faster, wider form of walking? No, let me rephrase that:

      Someone who’s trying to murder you is one hundred feet away, approaching at top speed, and you’ve just noticed them. You are currently in the open, but given another three seconds you can duck out of the way behind a concrete barrier; a few minutes after that, police will arrive and at the very least force your assailant to flee. How would you rate the killer’s chances of success (you being dead, critically wounded, or them at least escaping to take another shot at some later date) given that they’re armed with:

      a) a pistol?
      b) a rifle?
      c) a knife?
      d) a pickup truck?

      Bearing in mind of course that a vehicle traveling 60 mph can close that distance in a bit over one second.

      • gwern0

         The additional usefulness of a car in committing crimes over walking is a set fixed amount. You are arguing that ‘liberty crime + walking’.

        How, exactly, is the additional usefulness of a car *exactly* the right amount to push totalitarianism over in the ‘good idea’ slot? Isn’t this a remarkable amount? Would you have predicted this before cars came into existence? If cars could go 120mph (as in, say, Germany), what additional restrictions would this justify? Why do we not have these restrictions for bicycles or horses or segways or other forms of transportation that are faster than walking? (Or is your totalitarian calculation so fine-balanced that one has to go all the way up to a car before the balance finally tips?)

        To summarize: why should anyone believe you are doing anything but post hoc rationalizing of a status quo, exactly as Vladimir predicted was the case?

  • http://twitter.com/Rongorg Grognor

    One man’s modus pollens, as they say…

    I think this is an excellent argument against face-to-face interaction.

  • Pengyu Zhu

    Above all, telecommuting does not necessarily reduce travel! People’s travel time budget has remained constant for a long time. It is most likely that people use the extra time they saved from telecommuting for other trips, including non-work trips. 

    For more details, please read my recent work on telecommuting at http://works.bepress.com/pengyu_zhu/

    Indeed, we need better measures to monitor workers when they are working at home. But tone monitors and body sensors…hmm….

  • John Maxwell IV

    There are probably other good reasons for face-to-face interaction aside from employers being able to monitor employees. Could allow for better team cohesion, more motivated workers, etc.

  • Douglas Scheinberg

    http://dilbert.com/strips/comic/2001-12-16/

    Wally: Is it okay if I work from home one day a week?
    Pointy-Haired Boss: How would I know you were working?
    Wally: How do you know I’m working when I’m here?
    Pointy-Haired Boss: When you’re here I know you’re unhappy and that’s the same as work.

  • aka_Scoop

    Two points that seem to have gone mentioned:

    For all that commuting ranks among the least enjoyable things that people do, working with actual humans is way better than working alone at home. Many people get the vast majority of all social contact in their lives from working with others.

    Once the norm of having to come into work goes away, the norm that it has to be done by a local goes away. If it can be done from your computer 15 miles from the office, it can be done from China. Even if it’s a job that requires being an American, it can be done (for much less) by an American in a low cost part of the country rather than by you in Manhattan or any nice place you really want to live.

    Having the option to work from home one or two days a week would add nice flexibility. Having businesses realize that the vast majority of office work really can be done from anywhere would be a nightmare for a lot of workers.