Carrots and Sticks in the Workplace

amazon-warehouse-4In many ways you have to admire Amazon as a business.

They do organisation very well. They do big data very well. They collect and make use of their customer’s opinions in a way that has to be admired.

However, there are some who suggest that from an employee’s perspective, things might look a little different. A Panorama documentary recently exposed some of the ‘incentives’ used to encourage maximum productivity among the ‘pickers’ in their warehouses. This has also been the subject of an excellent article by Sarah O’Connor in the Financial Times.

What is not in doubt is that Amazon closely monitors their workers’ movements in order to increase the speed and efficiency of their work. The workers carry computer bar-code readers that count them down to the next ‘pick’ and start beeping when they make errors or get too far behind. As the worker’s performance improves, their targets are increased progressively. They meet with their managers regularly to discuss their performance and temporary workers face the prospect of early ‘release’ if they under-perform. This sort of intensive monitoring may be commonplace in the U.S., but in the U.K. the reaction has suggested that Amazon may be favouring stick more than carrot. So is it the monitoring that causes stress or is it the incentive? What if instead of being afraid of a penalty you could win a prize for the best performance of the day/week? What if you got a bonus for doing more than your target? What if you were competing for the best ‘team’ in the warehouse? I’m sure there are many workers who would westatsportslcome the challenge.

viper_podAn exciting example of the high-tech monitoring of movement at work is the use of the ‘ViperPod’ by most of the UK Premier League football and rugby clubs as well as GAA clubs such as Tyrone. An article in the Daily Mail shows how this small device captures a wealth of highly accurate information about the sportsperson’s movement, energy expenditure and physiological state. The Irish company STATSports now has an impressive international list of clients. Sports scientists Alan Clarke and Sean O’Connor have cleverly combined the latest gyroscope/accelerometer sensors with high frequency GPS and radio-frequency transmitters allowing detailed information on each player on the pitch to be analysed in real-time at the pitch side using their proprietary software. One of the STATSports analysts explained to ‘TheScore’ how this information can be used to prevent injuries as well as optimise performance. The way in which clubs use this information to influence their players could have either a positive or negative effect on their productivity and creativity.

Employers have started to look at using ‘gamification‘ techniques to boost employee health and productivity. Can measuring movement be used to create positive incentives to healthy lifestyle behaviours and improve employee health? Blue Shield have used several, including Shape Up Shield and MeYou. Healthrageous used personalised coaching to encourage healthy choices among employees via their mobile devices, but the business failed to thrive and it was taken over last year by the health and insurance giants Humana. Should people be given a discount if they can prove that they are adopting a health active lifestyle? Or is this an invasion of privacy?

So, what has all this got to do with the jobbing Rheumatologist? Perhaps not very much, but we’re clearly reaching the point where monitoring ambulatory activity in an accurate and scientific way is both feasible and affordable. And it is also becoming clear that this information can be used to alter behaviour, promote rehabilitation and perhaps even prevent injury. In my next post I’ll be looking at the first attempts to measure ambulatory activity as an outcome in arthritis patients.