MANAGEMENT AND COMPUTERS: NEGATIVE EFFECTS ON WORKLIFE
It appears that many people tend to assume that introducing computer technology to the workplace will make everything magically wonderful. It is often assumed that production will go up and employees’ jobs will be made easier and less mundane. This report points out that the introduction of computers to the workplace often has many negative effects on the quality of worklife and that these negative effects should not be overlooked while management is rejoicing over its implementation of the latest technology.
In his book, Brave New Workplace, Robert Howard claims that established management theories led to many of the problems arising from the introduction of computers to the workplace. A basic tenet of management theories is that the more control management has over the workers and production the better. This leads management to use the new technology of computers not necessarily only to modernize or better the workplace but also to give management more control over workers and production (Howard, 1985, pp. 36-43). In order to gain more control, management often excludes the workers from any participation in the choosing of what type of computer technology to implement and where, when, and how to implement it. In this way, management can manipulate the available technology to give them more control and to cut costs at the expense of the workers but without having to deal with any initial conflicting ideas of the workers about how to implement the technology (Wilkinson, 1983, pp. 449-451).
Another way in which management uses computers to gain more control over the workers is by using the computers to keep a constant record of exactly what a worker is doing – when they are working and when they aren’t, what they are working on, how long they spend on any particular task, the quantity of their work, the quality of their work (errors made), or time spent on the telephone (Howard, 1985, pp. 30-35). The workers end up feeling as though they are under a constant, unsympathetic, watchful eye. It would appear that this type of computer monitoring system goes against one of the basic ideas of our society: that one is innocent until proven guilty. Instead of being watched or investigated only if problems arise, the workers are under constant surveillance as if they were considered guilty; they are put behind bars and constantly and continuously having to prove their innocence (their good work). This basic violation of how a person expects to be treated (trusted and respected for their work) can obviously cause stress, anger, depression, and other problems in a person’s working life (O’Brien, 1980).
Not only does management use computers to increase their control over the workers by monitoring them but the workers also lose control over their jobs to computers, in terms of using skills and performing tasks. In many cases the computer takes over a person’s job and makes the worker’s particular skills no longer needed. Computers can often be programmed to do the tasks previously done by a worker and then the worker only has to push a few command buttons on the computer. In this way, the task is actually completed by the computer and thus the computer is essentially in control of the task, not the worker. This impersonalization of work and the distancing of workers from the tasks may leave little room for a sense of control, participation, and pride in their work. Many workers feel that computers are “taking over their jobs” (versus helping them with their jobs) and making their skills obsolete and unnecessary (Howard, 1985, pp. 40-44). In fact, as discussed above, most workers don’t even get to have a say in programming or implementing the computers to do their jobs. This seems counterproductive because the workers who have been doing a job all along probably know how the job can best be done and how computers can help the most. In any case, according to Brady & Liff (Forester, 1985, pp. 383-384), even if they don’t actually lose their employment – as many of them do – many workers complain that they have lost their “jobs” to computers and that now all they get to do is oversee the computers carrying out the tasks the workers used to do themselves. This causes job satisfaction to be low, and performance will suffer because of it (Forester, 1985, pp. 419-420).
Several steps can be taken to help solve the problem of the loss of workers’ control over their jobs due to the implementation of computers in the workplace. First of all, management needs to adopt new theories of management, or at least modify the old theories, taking into account the unique and novel problems which workers face in the light of new computer technology (Forester, 1985, pp. 464-465). In this regard, management should include workers in the choosing, implementing and using of computer systems. The workers’ needs as well as their hands-on knowledge of the tasks to be carried out should be taken into account when deciding how to implement computers. In addition, management should use the advantages of computers to assist the workers, not replace them. In that way, say Foulkes & Hirsch, workers wouldn’t resist the use of new technology so much for fear of losing their jobs and their “skills” (Forester, 1985, pp. 468-469).
As far as constantly monitoring workers by way of computer, management should use the advantages of the records computers can
keep, in order to improve and increase production – but not to the extreme of creating stress and fear in workers by constantly watching each worker personally like a circling vulture in wait of mistakes.
The implementation of computers in the workplace has also often led to the impersonalization and ultimate standardization of work. The personal touch that workers seem to want to have on their work is often ignored by management. Of course, the speed and standardization attained through using computers in the workplace have in many cases led to increased overall production. In terms of the workers, however, the introduction of computers has often led to an increase in workloads and higher quotas to be reached. Instead of using computers to decrease the workload of workers, management has typically chosen to retain fewer workers and increase the remaining workers’ workloads – because they now have the tireless computers to help them. In general, most workers do not seem happy with the higher quotas which management sets for them (Howard, 1985, pp. 56-65) – and which can be checked at any time by computer monitoring. The stress level created by trying to reach these high levels has even induced many workers to “cheat” by such means as introducing false data into the computer or hanging up on customers when their allotted time is up even if the conversation is not finished (Howard, 1985, pp. 58-62). This job-related stress on workers could easily be reduced if management would make more realistic and flexible quotas and time limits in light of the fact that workers are only humans, not machines, and sometimes they make mistakes and have bad days. Workers should be encouraged to perform their best but it is not fair to expect them to be perfect.
In addition to all the stress (caused by high quotas, computer monitoring, loss of control to management and their computers, and workers’ skills being replaced by computers), workers have also suffered other physical ailments due to the introduction of computers to the workplace. The primary physical problems incurred are blurred vision or other eye problems and back pain (Howard, 1985, pp. 74-75). The workers who suffer these ailments are those who sit and work at a computer terminal all day. Looking at a VDI computer screen all day is quite hard on the eyes and sitting in chairs and desks that are not proportioned or positioned properly for working at a computer terminal would obviously be hard on the back. Although the same back problems could occur to a person typing on a regular typewriter, the amount of work/tasks which can be done on a computer terminal is incredibly larger than that which can be done on a basic typewriter. Therefore, it seems that the introduction of computers has greatly increased the number of people whose jobs would require them to sit and type all day – and suffer back pains because of it.
The most obvious way to reduce the physical ailments that workers incur from working at a computer terminal all day is to give the workers more breaks away from the computer – possibly doing other tasks which don’t require the use of a computer terminal, or just plain breaks. Also, management should make sure that furniture in the workplace is designed to best accommodate the health of the worker. This may cost some money and time but if workers are healthy and happy they will perform better when they are working which should help counterbalance the costs (O’Brien, 1980).
Another problem which can arise for workers because of the way in which computers are implemented in the workplace is that computers tend to make work less social – that is, there is less interaction among workers, between workers and management, and between workers and customers. For example, computers with voices now give customers telephone information instead of the human operators; managers and workers can now send information, memos, bulletins, and work instructions and orders from computer terminal to computer terminal (which are set up in networks) without the need of any human-to-human contact.
The impersonalization discussed above can negatively affect workers because many workers prefer a camaraderie with their fellow workers and a personal, or at least a direct relationship with management and with customers. Not only does it break up the boredom of some jobs, but humans are social animals and generally both need and want interaction with other human beings (Howard, 1985, pp. 53-62, 90). For example, operators often complain that they don’t get to talk to customers as much any more – mostly they just get to push buttons and connect customers to the computer system.
Then there is the case where management learned (through computer monitoring of their workers) that flexible working hours decreased production a bit when workers slowed down to say their hellos and goodbyes to each other as they came and went at different times. Thus, management cut back on flexible work hours – further decreasing any interaction among workers. Although eliminating any non-work-related communication among workers will give the workers more time to work, humans are not computers and cannot work incessantly and happily without any flexibility and breaks or without any friendly interaction with other employees or customers. Nevertheless, management often chooses, as in the case above, even a small increase in production over the health and happiness of their employees. Child, et al., say this is a mistake because unhealthy, unhappy workers don’t perform at top ability and thus production and quality of work will suffer in the long run anyway (Forester, 1985, pp. 419-422).
In conclusion, the introduction of computers to the workplace is not necessarily wonderful for the workers. We have discussed many of the negative effects which have been felt by workers due to the implementation of computers in the workplace. Among these are: the increase of management control over workers and production and the resulting decrease in worker control; replacement of workers’ skills with computers and new programmers; computer surveillance and constant monitoring of workers by management; increased workloads and higher quotas; physical ailments caused by working long hours at computer terminals; standardization leading to the impersonalization of work; decrease in interpersonal interaction on the job and decay in the social structure of the workplace; and job-related stress and depression caused and/or increased by all of the above.
Although it now seems quite obvious that computers in the workplace can have many negative effects on the quality of worklife, in most cases, the computers per se are not causing the problems. The problems instead are rooted in management’s implementation and manipulation of computer technology for the purposes of increasing management control over workers and production and increasing efficiency and profits without any regard for the wants and needs of the workers or the quality of worklife. Personally, this writer finds it quite immoral to treat workers in such ways. Even if one were a dedicated capitalist, one would still find it unwise to have such disregard for workers.
Humans, not computers, are still the mainframe of the workforce and if the workers are unhappy with their worklife with computers then their performance is likely to suffer and they might resist the implementation of computer technology. In fact, some workers are so unhappy with the effect computers have had on their jobs that they have gone so far as to sabotage the computers (Howard, 1985, pp. 198-199). The decrease in worker performance and worker resistance to the implementation of computers will then ultimately lead to a decrease in profits. Thus, even purely in the interest of profit, it would be most advantageous for management to modify its policies so that the marvels of computers can be used in the workplace without alienating the workers and damaging the quality of worklife so much. Several steps which need to be taken are: maintaining the worker’s sense of control and usefulness; providing at least some job security with respect to adopting new technology; providing training and updating of skills needed for working with computers; including workers in the knowledge, implementation, and other decisions regarding the use of computers; toning down computer monitoring of individuals; setting less severe quotas and workloads; allowing for at least some interaction and camaraderie among workers; allowing periodic breaks away from computer terminals; and providing furniture best suited for working at a computer terminal.