Quite often in economic news I hear mention of increases in worker productivity. I never really thought much about the deeper meaning of that until recently. It is obvious that the amount of work a given person can do in a day can only increase so far, so where does this extra “productivity” come from? Certainly, machines can make a worker more productive or even make them redundant, but that also has its limits. But I’ve recently come face-to-face with this increased “productivity”.
The first was at a local Babies R Us store where we wanted to get a piece of furniture. First we had to locate somebody who could help us, but the one person at checkout was rather busy with the long line and it took a while to locate anybody else. The person we finally located seemed to be the only person in the store who had any clue as to what was going on, and as such was bombarded with questions from other employees and customers alike. Of course, what we wanted was out of stock, so we ordered it, though it took the cashier a while to figure out how to ring it up. Several weeks later we got a call from them informing us that we had to make an “appointment” to pick it up. When my wife called to do so, she was put on hold for 20 minutes, routed to the wrong department, and then asked to call back later. When we went to the store we once again faced a cashier who didn’t know how to process our order, and when loading it up we discovered that it wasn’t quite the color we wanted, but the person helping us could only give us an impotent shrug. Not wanting to deal with them any further we took it and left.
The other experience I had was at work, where I had a problem with one of my servers. So, I put in a service request and patiently waited. After a couple of weeks I was told the machine would need to be rebooted, but since it was a production server, I had to schedule a time. When that time came a different IT person looked at it and said the problem wasn’t even on this machine and I needed to file another service request against a different department. Doing that took nearly an hour since I had to determine which category, out of hundreds, that the SR belonged in. After several weeks the SR was closed with a question “is this still a problem?” Of course, it was, so submitted documentation of this and waited for a few more weeks, at which time I was told to send email to a certain person, so they could approve the fix. I am still waiting.
I’m sure everyone has a long list of tales like these. These show where this supposed productivity is coming from: us. Corporations are excellent mechanisms for externalizing costs, indeed, that and avoidance of responsibility are the corporations’ purpose. Productivity is just another kind of “cost” being externalized. Rather than hiring enough competent people to do the work, fewer people are employed at lower pay, which creates higher turnover, and the few remaining competent people eventually leave due to frustration and overwork. Since the remaining skeleton crew cannot deal with the workload, automated telephone systems and computer-based “trouble ticket” systems are put in place, not only to prevent you from speaking to an actual worker, but to also relentlessly measure their productivity, so that the inevitable layoffs will target the supposed laggards.
Like everything else in life, productivity is a zero-sum game. It cannot be increased without taking it from someone else.