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Is invasive tracking of worker productivity returning us to sweatshops of the past?

Article published by Philadelphia Business Journal on August 29, 2022.

I was recently asked by one of my readers how continuous improvement initiatives driven by the creativity and innovation of employees compares with the practice of monitoring employee productivity through invasive means. 

Forcing employees to be more productive by monitoring them is the antithesis of continuous improvement. The difference is like night and day. Continuous improvement empowers employees to improve their work processes and helps them develop a sense of ownership in what they do at the company. Invasive monitoring does not. One wonders why some companies don’t realize the dehumanizing consequences of invasive tracking on how their employees work.

In an Aug. 14 New York Times article headlined, “The rise of the [worker] productivity score,” writers Jodi Kantor and Arya Sundaram present numerous examples of how technology is being used to track the productivity of both blue and white collar workers and the companies who are developing invasive tracking software.

In some instances, management uses the information from the monitoring technology to reduce pay if productivity goals are not met. Terminations of unproductive employees are also a potential result.

Examples include software that tracks “active work,” as indicated by the number of keystrokes on an employee’s computer, cameras watching employees, the rate at which cashiers at checkout scan items and the speed at which warehouse workers perform their tasks. 

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These workplace practices devalue and dehumanize workers, and contribute to burnout. They are in part responsible for the “great resignation” which has occurred over the past year and the increased interest in unionization by employees within some companies.

The use of productivity tracking technology isn’t applicable for some jobs. The NYT article describes a situation where the productivity of social workers providing counseling to drug-addicted clients is being tracked by the number of keystroke entries on their computer! The article quotes a supervisor, stating, “This literally killed morale. I found myself really struggling to explain to all my team members, master’s-level clinicians, why we were counting their keystrokes.” 

Another example cited in the NYT article is a worker whose manager asked why his productivity declined during a specific 10-minute increment. He replied, “Sometimes I have to use the bathroom.” Is this where technology has taken us? Where is the common sense and good critical judgment of that individual’s manager?

It seems that we are returning to management practices from early in the Industrial Revolution when people worked in sweatshops. No need to think. Just do what we want you to do.  

Is it important to ensure employees are productive? Of course. Leaders need to understand the appropriate metric to track. For some jobs, what is accomplished is usually more important than how fast it’s accomplished. Leaders also need to ensure they respect their employees by not forcing them to achieve productivity goals that are unreasonable with the company’s processes currently in place.

Let employees who do the work have input in choosing the right metrics to track productivity and what the goals should be. Listen to their ideas on how to improve the efficiency of the company’s processes. A workforce that participates in setting the metrics and improving workflow processes will outperform a workforce treated like cogs in a wheel.

Stan Silverman is founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership and author of “Be Different! The Key to Business and Career Success.” He is also a speaker, advisor and widely read nationally syndicated columnist on leadership. He can be reached at

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