April 14, 2006

Squeezing workers to the limit

So there you are in a fast food drive-through, waiting for the people in the car ahead of you to place their order. They do so and move on, and you slowly move up to the speaker. It takes about 10 seconds for this shifting of cars to take place. Haven't you wondered what the person at the other end of the speaker is doing with that 10 seconds of downtime? Me, neither.

But the good folks at fast food corporate headquarters care. They worry that the employee may be goofing off, perhaps drinking some water, thinking about their children or friends, what to make for dinner later, perhaps even thinking about how they can climb out of this kind of dead-end job. Committed as the corporate suits are to maximizing employee productivity, they feel that those 10 seconds between cars could be put to better use than to allow idle thoughts. But how?

Enter the internet. What if you outsourced the order taking to someone at a central location, who then enters the order into a computer and sends it back via the internet to the store location where you are? The beauty of such a situation is that the person at the central location could be taking an order from another store somewhere else in the country in the 10 second interval that was previously wasted. Genius, no?

Sound bizarre? This is exactly what McDonalds is experimenting with in California. The New York Times on April 11, 2006 reports on the way the process works and one such call center worker, 17 year old Julissa Vargas:

Ms. Vargas works not in a restaurant but in a busy call center in this town [Santa Maria], 150 miles from Los Angeles. She and as many as 35 others take orders remotely from 40 McDonald's outlets around the country. The orders are then sent back to the restaurants by Internet, to be filled a few yards from where they were placed.

The people behind this setup expect it to save just a few seconds on each order. But that can add up to extra sales over the course of a busy day at the drive-through.

What is interesting about the way this story was reported was that it was focused almost entirely on the technology that made such a thing possible, the possible benefits to customers (saving a few seconds on an order) and the extra profits to be made by the company. "Saving seconds to make millions" as one call center executive put it.

There was no discussion of the possible long-term effects on the workers, or the fact that the seconds are taken from the workers' lives while the millions are made by the corporation and its top executives and shareholders. This is typical of the way the media tend to underreport the perspective of the workers, especially low-paid ones.

Look at the working conditions under which the call center people work, all of which are reported as if they are nifty innovations in the business world, with no hint that there was anything negative about these practices:

Software tracks [Ms. Vargas'] productivity and speed, and every so often a red box pops up on her screen to test whether she is paying attention. She is expected to click on it within 1.75 seconds. In the break room, a computer screen lets employees know just how many minutes have elapsed since they left their workstations
. . .
The call-center system allows employees to be monitored and tracked much more closely than would be possible if they were in restaurants. Mr. King's [the chief executive of the call center operation] computer screen gives him constant updates as to which workers are not meeting standards. "You've got to measure everything," he said. "When fractions of seconds count, the environment needs to be controlled."

This is the brave new world of worker exploitation. But in many ways it is not new. It is merely an updated version of what Charlie Chaplin satirized in his 1936 film Modern Times, where workers are given highly repetitious tasks and closely monitored so that they can be made to work faster and faster.

The call center workers are paid barely above minimum wage ($6.75 an hour) and do not get health benefits. But not to worry, there are perks! They do not have to wear uniforms, and "Ms. Vargas, who recently finished high school, wore jeans and a baggy white sweatshirt as she took orders last week." And another plus, she says, is that after work "I don't smell like hamburgers."

Nowhere in the article was any sense of whether it is a good thing to push workers to the limit like this, to squeeze every second out of their lives to increase corporate profit. Nowhere in the article is there any sign that the journalist asks people whether it is ethical or even healthy for employees to be under such tight scrutiny where literally every second of their work life is monitored, an example of how the media has internalized the notion that what is good for corporate interests must be good for everyone. Just because you work for a company, does this mean they own every moment of your workday? Clearly, what these call centers want are people who are facsimiles of machines. They are not treating workers as human beings who have needs other than to earn money.

In many ways, all of us are complicit in the creation of this kind of awful working situation, by demanding low prices for goods and unreasonably quick service and not looking closely at how those prices are driven down and speed arrived at. How far are we willing to go in squeezing every bit of productivity from workers at the low end of the employment scale just so that the rest of us can save a few cents and a few seconds on a hamburger and also help push up corporate profits? As Voltaire said many years ago, "The comfort of the rich depends upon the abundance of the poor."

The upbeat article did not totally ignore what the workers thought about this but even here things were just peachy. "Ms. Vargas seems unfazed by her job, even though it involves being subjected to constant electronic scrutiny." Yes, a 17-year old woman straight put of high school may not be worn out by this routine yet. In fact the novelty of the job may even be appealing. Working with computers may seem a step up from flipping hamburgers at the store. But I would like to hear what she says after a year of this kind of work.

This kind of story, with its cheery focus on the benefits accruing to everyone except the worker, and its callous disregard for what the long-term effects on the workers might be, infuriates me.

I have been fortunate to always work in jobs where I had a great deal of autonomy and where the luxury of just thinking and even day-dreaming are important parts of work, because that is how ideas get generated, plans are formulated, and programs are envisaged. But even if people's jobs do not require much creativity, that is not a reason to deny them their moments of free thought.


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This can be seen in other levels of employment as well. With Blackberry's and the like, many employees are never truly away from work (witness salespeople, support engineers and the like). In a sense, the very technologies that were supposed to make our lives easier have only served to cram more into them; the time we save by typing a status report into email vs. writing it by hand has only resulted in us writing (and reading) more status reports.

I think though that the situation is unfortunately more tangled. How much of this revolves around the work ethic? Paretto(?) said that the time to perform a task expands to fill the time allotted to it. I would paraphrase that to say that the time spent goofing off expands to fill the time allotted to it. Thus the 'occassional' personal call turns into day-long chat sessions with family and friends.

But I think the solution lies somewhere in between, and I find this type of monitoring over the top. (Unethical? I'll have to noodle that one a bit.) Besides one day McDonald's will implement voice recognition and you won't have to talk to anyone at all!

Posted by Mike on April 14, 2006 09:05 AM

While this McDonald's example is concerning, I believe it is much more common than anyone believes. I cringe every time I hear the words "increasing employee productivity" or "improving a company’s efficiency." The burden is always born by workers through longer hours, less pay/benefits, lay offs, increased work load, etc. Meanwhile the rewards are reaped by those at the top.

Posted by on April 14, 2006 10:26 AM

I cringe every time I hear the words "increasing employee productivity" or "improving a company’s efficiency." The burden is always born by workers through longer hours, less pay/benefits, lay offs, increased work load, etc.These are only the worse examples (to the employee) of how improvements are made, and are not the only solutions to increased productivity or efficiency for an organization. Many other solutions exist that can be very beneficial to employees and increase productivity, such as using technology to assist in tasks, identifying repetitive tasks in an organization, better management of knowledge/information/experience throughout an organization, improvements in benefits to increase morale, education & training, etc.

Posted by Brian Gray on April 14, 2006 10:39 AM

I guess there are two major issues I take from this story.

First their may be a great conflict between how the levels of productivity are measured from the organizational versus employee perspective. Is the organization being reasonable in its assumption that no activity occurs between orders? I have had times when an order had to be resubmitted, so I was at the window during the time of suspected "low activity". Yet, the employees were still active doing others tasks when not taking orders. Also, have the workers maybe reached their preceived level of activity based on employment factors. For example, maybe people do not consider a minimum wage salary to require that every second involve action. At such small pay should we expect this type of work from people all the time? At what point do we push the body or mind too hard, especially considering everyone is physically, emotionally, and mentally different?

The other concern I have is customer satisfaction, expected levels of convenience, and price ramifications. Does this savings in seconds by outsourcing out weigh other factors that come into play? Very few times does an order get lost from the drive thru speaker (or first window) to the second window, but the odds are greatly reduced by relying on a distant person and the Internet. How many of you are confident your computer, Internet, etc. will always work? You also lose the personal touch as the distant person only knows what is on the screen in front of them. If the restaurant does not tell the distant person that chicken nuggets will not be up for another 10 minutes or that the milkshakes are not as thick as normal, the customer have lost some of that personalized touch we come to expect. Also, giving orders of the current speakers systems have their problems now, and often you are directed to pull forward to finish your order. With this proposed system, you would need to pull forward and give an order to a person that does not normally do that (and may not even be trained), which will only upset the customer more.

I thought that one of the reasons fast food establishments could keep down their costs is that employees were cross-trained in many areas. Would a system reduce the chance for that and maybe make scheduling more difficult?

Posted by Brian Gray on April 14, 2006 10:59 AM

My God, that's horrifying.

I wouldn't be surprised if that kind of job did long term damage; I suspect that sustained attention at that level causes increase in stress hormone responses, though I don't have any citations to prove it, and it's suspected that cortisol production may be associated with cognitive impairment, depression, and Alzheimer's disease (though the connections are still pretty murky).

It's hard to boycott a place I rarely buy food at anyway, but I'll keep this in mind for sure.

Posted by Erin on April 14, 2006 11:00 AM

I guess I'm a little conflicted about this post. While I'm definitely all for worker's rights, I also wonder if it wouldn't be dangerous (like Mike suggested) to become too critical of attempts by organizations to increase their own productivity. Isn't that basically the principle of competition and innovation? Look at France, with their caps on how long workers can work in a week, mandatory holidays and the like have created a system where economic output is consistently decreasing. In the U.S., we as a nation benefit from the fact that we're one of the most productive (economically) societies on the planet.

I think a better track might be to say that, OK, given that the total number of jobs available is decreasing as efficiency increases, and that the workers at those jobs are subjected to increasing levels of stress, what is really needed is wage reform. I'm sure that girl at the call center wouldn't mind getting paid about $10 an hour even if the work was stressful, and if she had healthcare on top of it not only would McDonald's still reap increased profits, but she would get a living wage.

You still have the issue of workers displaced by the outsourcing of orders to call centers, but that can be combatted through simply increasing corporate taxes to pay for retraining programs. After all, if they're going to fire 3-4 people for every one they hire at a call center, the least we as a society could ask is that they bear the burden of retraining workers who can't find alternative employment.

Just a thought.

Posted by Ben on April 14, 2006 11:24 AM

Great post! The focus on the productivity of the lowest level worker while ignoring the waste at the top has long been a concern of mine.

And Erin, you are right, there have been studies that the person with the least control over their schedule and work are both stressed AND unhappy.
Call Center environments are often VERY stressful. In the book Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force, the author talks about both the short term AND the long term effect of high levels of stress chemicals on the brain.

Employees often resort to tricking the computers to get out of the never blinking glare of Hal. I read an article in 2600 that talks about how the incoming call computer can be tricked into extending breaks and looking like you were on a call when you weren't

If they hate people so much then they should invest in computer speech recognition. But it is cheaper and easier to exploit humans.

Posted by spocko on April 14, 2006 01:07 PM

Back in 2001 a group of us were evaluating two vendors for a project. We visited each of their corporate offices and had the opportunity to tour their call centers.

Company A had a very friendly work environment, people seemed relaxed and happy yet they were also very productive. They had low turnover, a high rate of return, and their product was reasonably priced.

Company B monitored a high percentage of the phone calls, used computerized time-keeping to ensure continual calling, housed their people in tiny tiny cubes with short walls and didn't allow personal decorations. The room was noisy, turnover was high, and their product was more expensive (Probably because they had to spend more money on training) When I saw this room I was revolted. I felt as though I were touring veal penned for slaughter.

I was not alone in this feeling, and our team unanimously agreed to hire Company A. Aside from the other factors, we also felt that a company that treated its workers well was more likely to also treat its clients well.

I think in the long run far more value is gained by treating workers respectfully.

I hope you have a happy secular Sunday!

Posted by cool on April 14, 2006 03:14 PM

It is not that the search for increased efficiency is bad, per se, it is just that the mental and physical health of the workers need to be an important factor to be considered in implementing any scheme.

I just can't imagine that monitoring people all the time does anyone any good. Cool's example is telling. And Spocko is also right in that under those conditions, the worker's energies and creativity become directed towards thwarting the system.

Mike, I think that you are referring to Parkinson's Law.

I myself have resisted (so far!) getting a Blackberry and even a cell phone, simply so that I can have some uninterrupted time to myself to simply think.

Posted by Mano Singham on April 15, 2006 11:24 AM

I worked at a fast McDonalds in highschool. I don't where they're getting that ten seconds. People putting together the orders never stop moving, and if you get behind on coffee, no one can save you. In the back, there's a rhythm between taking money from the person who's right at the window and taking the next order while counting it and getting the change. If an order holds up the line, they pull it forward and bring it out to them at the rail. If it slows down, you fold burger boxes.

I actually liked working at McDonalds in highschool. My friends worked there. The manager made up little contests for speed for five dollar gift certificates, and we were all pretty competitive people. I would say both front drive through and running the bin are very highly skilled jobs where the ability of the person really matters to the profit of the store. It's going to be a long time before these jobs are automated. There were also people who could assemble burgers at a record pace and were really impressive to watch.

However, not everyone working there was a highschool student making mall money on their way to college that could be motivated by a 5$ gift certificate. A lot of people were lifers. And since the company was trying to give them the smallest amount of money possible under the law, they were content with giving the company the smallest amount of effort they could without getting fired (which pretty much never happened). Sounds fair to me. They were really nice people, often with children, who showed a lot of motivation in things that actually mattered. It's also true that they send people home randomly throughout the day when the profit numbers go to low so you never know how many hours you're going to get. Why have have any loyalty to your employer when they have none to you?

Point is, the idea that you don't lose anything by paying people minimum wage is absurd. If there is absolutely no competition to get a job at McDonalds, or get promoted in that job, the store takes a huge productivity hit and saving a few seconds here and there isn't going to help much. I also worked at a call center before college, which had a much larger percentage of lifers, where no one felt an ounce of obligation towards the company and there were all sorts of little tricks to give them less labor.

Posted by Cindy on April 16, 2006 02:58 PM


Thanks so much for giving a window into what life is like behind the scenes of such places. It is a sobering picture. While people can put up with it as a transition stage in their lives, I wonder how the "lifers" manage.

Posted by Mano Singham on April 16, 2006 03:44 PM


I read "Fast Food Nation" in January and it cured me forever of eating at fast food places. What you describe in this post is simply another step in the McDonald's approach of making the worker expendable, by making the work less and less dependent on individuals and, thus more conducive to a "throwaway" workforce -- you pay them little, give them no benefits, make the work mindless, but it doesn't matter when they quit because it takes no time to train new workers and you have no investment in them. Honestly, read Eric Schlosser's book and you'll see that what you describe here is part of a pattern that started a very long time ago and that continues to drive the fast food industry. It's effective in squeezing every last dime out of the production end of the operation (and therefore keeping execs and shareholders happy), but it is dehumanizing.

Posted by Ross on April 16, 2006 11:56 PM

I have been meaning to read "Fast Food Nation" for a long time and will do so soon. I heard an interview with him on Fresh Air with Terry Gross and he was also interviewed at the end of "Supersize This!" (the DVD) and I was intrigued by what he had to say.

Posted by Mano Singham on April 17, 2006 07:49 AM

I'm reading the book The World Is Flat right now and it talks about this sort of thing. It is happening in every industry in all countries. Work is moving to where it can be done most efficiently ($ wise), whether it is moving widget making to China or taking McDonals orders to India.

I'd recommend the book to almost anyone. If you read nothing else, the first chapter is really great.

Posted by Aaron Shaffer on April 18, 2006 09:20 AM

Holy Cow! Don't let the powers that be at my company know about that productivity tracking software. It's bad enough I just spent 15 minutes reading your blog, but to add to the guilt, I get paid like triple the average Mickey D's worker.

Posted by Barry on April 19, 2006 03:35 PM

I'm sure there are many of us who have worked minimum wage service jobs before. The one thing that makes a job like that hellish more than anything else is downtime, because it makes hours tick by ever so slowly. For min-wage jobs, I am all for high-paced work with little sitting around, and when fatigue or whatever sets in, long and discrete break times.

I agree exploitation can be a problem when the labor market is locally surplus, but if these employees are happy, then clearly this is not one of these situations. Efficiency of labor, like efficiency of any capital, is, in the long run, a good thing.

Oh, and these workers won't be overworked, simply because fatigue would reduce efficiency. The monitoring they do can be as much to weed out slackers as it is to keep people awake and refreshed. It's not like they're horsewhipping employees for taking a sip of water.

Posted by Sam on August 4, 2006 02:06 PM