What Role Do Algorithms Play in the Workplace?

What Role Do Algorithms Play in the Workplace

Do they improve productivity or make workplaces impersonal? Here’s how algorithms affect offices today. 

Algorithms do just about anything these days. They recommend films, manage your passwords for you and even find you people to go on dates with. Naturally, with algorithms being capable of so many diverse applications, they have found their way into modern workplace management as well. 

Algorithmic management refers to a set of technologies that are used to manage remote workplaces. The use of algorithmic management has gained prominence ever since the COVID-19 pandemic. It is most commonly used in the retail and hospitality industries to manage part-time workers (also called gig workers). Let’s take a look at the benefits of using algorithms in the office as well as the ethical concerns of doing so. 

Benefits of using algorithms 

During the hiring process

Algorithmic management can be used right from the moment a company begins looking for potential employees. An algorithm can go through the resumes sent in for a position and filter out the one that best matches the job requirements. They can also take over the process of conducting tests and preliminary interviews. 

Some believe that using algorithms can remove the influence of factors like previous work success and the college the prospective hire studied from—typically considered the sole criteria during the recruitment process. One way this is being accomplished is through the online video game Wasabi Waiter. 

The game involves serving as a waiter in a sushi restaurant and acting based on the moods and needs of the customers. The game collects your data and uses it to identify traits such as resilience, self-restraint and empathy. The player’s traits are compared to the ones possessed by successful workers in the job they have applied for. Based on how closely the traits of the player match, they are either shortlisted or rejected. 

During everyday work

Once an employee has been hired, algorithms can be used to allocate tasks to them. For instance, the ride-hailing service Uber’s algorithm encourages drivers to continue taking on more rides by showing them that they are close to reaching a certain amount of earnings. 

Employees can also be provided with a detailed report of their performance to motivate them to do better over time. For instance, the food delivery service Deliveroo provides its workers with monthly performance reviews, which include average travel time to restaurants, average travel time to customers and so on. 

Algorithms can even help employers in dissuading employees from leaving the job. An example of this is the algorithm deployed by IBM, which finds patterns in employee data and predicts who is more likely to quit. It then recommends what can be done to keep the employee from leaving—be it providing them with training or giving them a promotion. 

Ethical implications of using algorithms at the office

Surveillance 

The first concern with using algorithms is that they constantly collect data. This increased surveillance strengthens managerial control but does so at the cost of workers’ autonomy. Going back to our Uber example, while the algorithm can encourage you to work harder, it also keeps track of the drivers’ speeds to ensure safety. 

Not meeting Uber’s criteria for performance can lead to punishments. For instance, if a driver doesn’t accept three drives in a row, they are locked out of the app for two minutes. In other cases, mistakes can also lead to a permanent ban. The constant fear of being penalized naturally brings down worker morale. 

Pre-existing biases

Another issue that emerges from using algorithms is understanding the criteria for algorithmic decision-making. When an algorithm decides which employee to hire for a particular job, it relies on the data that has been fed into it. So, let’s say you’re hiring for a managerial position and women have not held that role before, an algorithm trained on historical data would give men preference over women when hiring.  

However, if tools like Wasabi Waiter are used, which rely more on personal attributes as opposed to professional qualifications, this could be overcome to a certain extent. 

Removing human interaction from management 

Those who work in managerial positions know how important it is to actively interact with your employees. Positive workplace interactions have been known to improve job satisfaction and employee turnover rates. But this isn’t possible if human managers are replaced by algorithmic managers. 

This can have disastrous consequences for the employees. Today, more than 35% of human resource (HR) leaders count on data to come up with ways to reduce labor costs. Because of this, they might end up firing someone who the data shows as unproductive without trying to get to the cause of the unproductivity, thereby leaving the underlying issues unaddressed. 

To help balance out the negatives and positives of using algorithms in workplace management, companies need to make sure that human managers and algorithms work together. Along with that, there should be open lines of communication between the employees and the employer so that any concern about surveillance or data privacy can be addressed. Finally, those in managerial positions and employees should both be trained in how algorithms work and how they can be challenged so that the algorithms don’t end up creating exploitative working conditions. Doing all of this can make it possible for offices to make the best of the algorithms that they are using.

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Header image courtesy of Envato. 

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