Yang: Hourly Employees’ Plight … Further Complicated By High Tech

Hourly Employees’ Plight…Further Complicated By High Tech
Los Alamos

First, an update: A few columns back, I wrote about the Market Basket case (here) in which the CEO was forced out by the board of directors, agitated by a cranky cousin. Thereafter, the employees had gone on strike to demand the reinstatement of their beloved CEO, Arthur T. Mr. Arthur T. recently bought out the company, at $1.5 billion price tag, and was back on his old job. The buyout brought a huge sigh of relief from the employees, and now they are rebuilding the enterprise. I wish them luck. 

Now on to today’s topic.

I am keenly aware that most of my writing deals with the professional class. My rationalization, and rationale, is that the fundamental principles informing my writing are applicable for all walks of life … most of the time. As the professional class has been working furiously on technological advancement, providing efficiency or sometimes surveillance (here), they leave behind hourly employees whose lives seem still largely dictated by low tech. 

When we think “technologies,” we mostly see improvements they have brought to our lives. Even though we are also aware of some of the shortcomings, it isn’t easy to just act on our “knowing what’s good for us.” For instance, we know that texting while driving is downright senseless, yet many still do. Or, tweeting too quickly, or being too trusting with our private matters on the Internet, or posting indiscriminately on Facebook, etc. At the workplace, many software programs have helped enterprises schedule their hourly employees to achieve “just-in-time” results. These programs may indeed increase efficiency for enterprises – like, who’d say, “I don’t want any more efficiency?” – and therefore higher profits. That is, if we only look at one side of this equation, the employer’s side. 

It turns out that such software for scheduling can wreck employees’ lives (here). Finely-tuned graphs of business flow may indicate that, say, only two employees are needed for certain 2-3 hour periods. Inevitably what comes with such finesse, through constant updating, is the much smaller window of notification for the employees. Scheduling software couldn’t care less about whether these employees have reliable transportation, small kids or elderly parents needing care, employees’ own school schedule, or other life matters.

Constructing such a list of “things” or concerns takes little time on my part; however, in reality, these life events, compounded by unpredictable schedules, create anxiety, stress, breaking points for relationships, maxing out one’s network of help, etc. In the New York Times’ article, the featured young single mother often has to wake up her 4 year old way before dawn to take the 3-hour commute with tight schedules on bus transfers, hoping the bus would be on time, and leaving her son at the day care with little room for discussion and interaction with caretakers. What’s more, these hourly employees, usually with little job security and therefore no power to complain, have almost no say over their own preferences for hours. In one weekend, this young single mom was scheduled to work till 11 p.m. Friday night, do the closing, and come back to start at 4 a.m. Saturday, and 5 a.m. the following Sunday. 

It is becoming common practice nowadays for hourly employees to find out their schedule only hours beforehand, a very small window for notification indeed. 

The young single mom in the article is a barista at a Starbucks Café. There is actually a good ending to her story. Within 24 hours of the article, Starbucks issued a policy modification (here) that the employees should have at least one week’s notice for their schedule. Further, managers should take into account individuals’ other demands outside of work. The Starbucks HQ even included a new policy to help employees whose commute may be more than an hour to find a closer Starbucks. Of course, many baristas aren’t confident that their managers would abide by the new changes. For now, though, they’ll take any improvement. And to think that Starbucks is one of the more progressive organizations that pay attention to employees’ issues. 

A few days after all this brouhaha had simmered down, a customer mentioned the changes experienced by the featured barista, effected by the NYTimes’ article, and asked this barista if she had encountered any such problems with the café. The barista just graciously smiled without bringing the spotlight onto herself. 

Story aside, what this article – and the subsequent update – indicate is that as our technologies become ever more sophisticated, they create even more distance between statistical data and human faces. Management likes to rely on “faithful” numbers and data, but numbers aren’t always the whole “evidence,” even as I still advocate evidence-based management (here). However solid numbers and evidence may appear, they do not always illuminate the context from which they are derived, nor the context to which they should be applied. What does illuminate that contextual layer is the basic element of organizations: relationship. Seriously, if managers only need to input data for the software to develop the schedule, why not eliminate that layer of managers and just go straight to the computers to bring about higher efficiency, if this is our only goal. 

Do we use technologies? or, do technologies own us? An old debate that probably will never be resolved. 

Till next time, 

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact:  taso100@gmail.com

Editor’s note: Dr. Yang has a PhD in Management from the Wharton Business School of the University of Pennsylvania. She taught at Wharton for a number of years, and consulted for small groups and small organizations and on cross-cultural issues. Her professional worldview comprises three pillars: 1. All organizations are social systems in which elements are inter-related. 2. To improve organizations, the focus should be on the positive dimensions on which to build. This philosophical foundation is Appreciative Inquiry. 3. Yang subscribes to the methodological perspective that she is part of the instrument from which to gain quality data from respondents, and with which to compare and contrast with others’ realities.