On the Clock by Emily Guendelsberger (Non Fiction)

A fascinating and thought provoking read. Guendelsberger — an unemployed journalist and previous editor of The Onion — goes “under cover” in three low-paying, highly monitored positions — all designed to handle massive amounts of personnel churn. She tries an Amazon fulfillment center at “Peak” (December), a Convergys call center, and a McDonald’s (located at the corner of Tourist and Homeless in downtown San Francisco).

This is part investigative journalism and part humorous memoir — Emily is FUNNY. I particularly valued the actual description of each job — the processes, the training, the working environment were fascinating — and her personal reflections on how each job made her feel and what coping strategies she personally had to put in place to last as long as she did. Each section included some background context (Frederick Winslow Taylor and the birth of management consultants, Henry Ford and the birth of the assembly line, the effects of long term stress on the human body, etc.) and a few interviews with co-workers.

I was less enamored of her conclusions on the “future of work” — jobs like these that are dehumanizing and “suck.” Techno-Taylorism — she may have coined this phrase — refers to applying technology to increase industrial efficiency — usually by monitoring employees’ every movement and issuing warnings, alarms, and omnipresent progress widgets to spur faster, more efficient work (and massively stressful and draining for the employee). According to Guendelsberger, the stress resulting from this externally sourced drive to suppress our humanity is the thing that is causing the American masses to spiral into depression, anger, and drug abuse. I was hoping for more of an “expose and propose” approach to the issues, but instead I got a “complain and throw up our hands” approach — suggesting that everyone simply go home and think about how to make this world a better place. I did find a lot to think about from reading this book, but I think the issues run a lot deeper than corporate greed and the stress of constant technological surveillance.

Overall a fast and completely absorbing read. Guendelsberger is an excellent writer and made the material easy to absorb. The writing was unapologetically personal. She was quite up front about knowing that she could (and would) quit any time, not having a family to support as many of her colleagues did, and admitting how personally unsuited she was for many of these tasks. There were times when I found myself thinking “ugh — another whining Millenial,” but I’m sure I would have been whining even more loudly, and although I wish there had been a few more interviews with colleagues, those that she included did present a broader and sometimes contradictory perspective to her own.

Her writing is my favorite part — I can hear The Onion in it. Some quotes:

“Right now though, exhaustion has shrunk my circle of empathy to the point that it’s barely big enough for myself. I didn’t know that could happen, and it’s not pleasant.”

“As a culture, we put far too much blind trust in data and technology. Math and logic are beautiful languages. But it’s so pretentious to pretend that they have adequate vocabulary to accurately describe a human, much less whether a human is happy or miserable. Our brains are the most complicated things in the known universe, with a hundred billion neurons making connections in a mind-bogglingly complex web that constantly changes. Our levels of technology aren’t remotely close to being able to accurately describe that mess, and they won’t be for a very long time. Numbers and statistics just aren’t up to communicating how something feels, even though that’s often extremely important information.”

“The constant monitoring I found so stressful doesn’t bother these women. I felt like someone was always watching in case I screwed up; they feel like someone’s taking note of the good work they do. All three have had to pick up slack from deadbeat coworkers at other jobs; when it’s obvious who’s working and who isn’t, you never end up doing someone else’s job on top of your own…”

“Why is the country ready to riot over jobs — immigrants taking them, trade deals killing them, Wall Street destroying them? Because these jobs suck donkey balls.”

“I frequently fantasize about MBAs from the F. Kafka School of Management cackling as they designed this system for maximum alienation, frustration and existential anxiety. I’m sure the reality is mundane, though — I’m guessing some rep figures out how to use Telegence to steal customer information, so upper management isn’t willing to risk letting any reps officially use it despite the lack of a functional replacements.”

“I often picture Crowley as the original designer of modern scheduling software, because it frequently feels like we’ve been understaffed at the precise levels that will maximize human misery on both sides of the counter.” (referring to the demon from Good Omens)

“I’ve been developing a sort of callus over the earnest part of myself that genuinely cares about the customers and wants to do a good job for them. It thickens every time someone says something terrible to me. As it gets tougher, I’ve become increasingly numb to my customer interactions, good and bad. It’s harder for angry people to upset me, but I get much less pleasure from making people happy. This dead muted feeling reminds me a lot of depression, and it worries me.”

“But at this moment, techno-Taylorism, the decline of organized labor, automation, and the ongoing destruction of the shark-cage worker protections have tipped the balance of power in the workplace way, way in favor of employers. It’s gotten so out of balance that even many workers seem to truly believe that the things that make them less efficient than sharks or robots are weaknesses — moral failings, like original sin.”

“Bezos then brainstormed a list of traits that make the public think of a company as “cool” or “uncool”. Uncool things: defeating tiny guys, rudeness, conquerors, hypocrisy, mercenaries, pandering. Cool things: the young, explorers, inventing, being polite, taking risks, empowering others, thinking big, authenticity, and winning — especially when you’re defeating bigger, unsympathetic guys.”

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