Service of Surveillance

June 30th, 2014

Categories: Digital Monitoring, Office Design, Restaurant, Surveillance, Suspicion


I’ve always marveled at a company with more than one branch that is able to maintain quality service. Top management can’t be everywhere and to function, some people need to be supervised.

Today there’s a solution to this challenge.

In Steve Lohr’s front page New York Times story, “Unblinking Eyes Track Employees,” surveillance technology determined that social interaction makes workers more productive. As a result one bank introduced a daily coffee break for at team of telemarketers who, in addition to working more efficiently, didn’t quit as frequently as others who weren’t giving this chance to mingle.

Sensors worn by employees who agree to be monitored can measure tone of voice, posture and body language as well as how long two employees speak.

communal office tablesThis science can impact office design. It seems that giving office workers communal tables or lowered dividers around work spaces inspires productivity. “‘We don’t know if those tactics work,’ Mr. Koop said. ‘What we’re starting to see is the ability to quantitatively measure things instead of just going by intuition.’”  Bryan Koop is a commercial office developer whose client is one of the companies that conducts and analyzes office surveillance. [I don’t think you need digital monitors to come to this conclusion. Who but the most bold will goof off in sight of office neighbors and who wants the world to hear personal conversations?]

Digital monitoring helps management identify efficient waiters. At one chain they chose one to manage a newly opened restaurant. Wrote Lohr: “The digital sentinel……. tracked every waiter, every ticket, and every dish and drink, looking for patterns that might suggest employee theft. But that torrent of detailed information, parsed another way, cast a computer-generated spotlight on the most productive workers.”

Good waiterIn the restaurants where monitoring existed, weekly sales increased—almost $3,000 on average–as a result of surveillance. What a nice surprise. That happened because waiters and waitresses, knowing they were being watched, urged customers to try a dessert or have another drink. The theft that management thought they’d detect amounted to only $108/week per restaurant. There were 392 restaurants in 39 states in the study.

“The monitoring software is a product from NCR called Restaurant Guard,” Lohr wrote. “The product, introduced in 2009, exploits the rapid progress in so-called big data technology, for collecting, storing and analyzing vast amounts of data.” Several thousand restaurants use the software according to Lohr.

If your employer asked you to wear a monitoring device, would you volunteer? Do you think you would be penalized if you refused? What do you think of monitoring employees? Should the monitoring industry be regulated?

stopwatch 2

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12 Responses to “Service of Surveillance”

  1. Martha Takayama Said:

    The kind of digital monitoring described here seems to be very similar to that used for travel surveillance, law enforcement undercover operations, and prisons. Although it may involve some technological sophistication, it seems primitive, punitive and way beyond anything George Orwell imagined. It evokes stories of the Stalin era and purges!

    It seems ludicrous to confuse scheduled, monitored, and essentially censored encounters with real social interaction. This thinking seems very primitive. It would be far better to train workers, including waiters, in the appropriate skills, conduct, and responsibilities for any given assignment. I shudder at the thought of paying for a meal to be served by help that is monitored in this fashion. Our service industry is sufficiently lacking in charm as well as efficiency that at least in the case of waiters, it might be more effective to offer decent wages and benefits! It is far better to generate positive feelings among co-workers and a sense of loyalty and/or team spirit. Japanese corporations sometimes employ such techniques as group exercise for this purpose.

    I consider being asked to wear a monitor tantamount to being required to wear an ankle bracelet as mandated by the Court! I think the monitoring industry should reflect profoundly on law, order, civil liberties and common sense.

  2. Jeanne Byington Said:


    You so vividly describe the ambiance and symbolism that such surveillance conveys. I don’t think the findings would be worth the potential damage. Many “discoveries” are pretty obvious and don’t require surveillance data [though people in corporations love to quantify every move to cover their decisions].

    The CEO or exec. VP or some high ranking person at the restaurant chain would merely need to make surprise and random drop-ins to ensure productivity, service and cleanliness. Once the word gets out–and they should drop in on one place a few times in a row to keep everyone at top performance and on guard–voila! Toss the cameras.

    I imagine that wearing a monitor in an office would have the same effect on employees as being watched has on restaurant staff: It would improve productivity because people knowing that their chat about Clint Eastwood’s “Jersey Boys” or the party they attended over the weekend will be heard by Big Brother or Sister….so they won’t communicate with colleagues except at meetings or about business. The result is less loyalty to the workplace as collegiality diminishes. Isn’t what one of the studies indicated? The summer baseball league won’t replace healthy, happy teams.

    Will this be the end of office romance?

  3. Hester Cradock Said:

    Once upon a time when “Political Action Committees” (PACS) were young and a new fangled way for business to control Washington, I was far enough up the corporate ladder that I received a personal letter from our Chairman asking me to give “voluntarily” what for me was a large percentage of my salary to his new PAC. I, of course, did.

    To answer your question, of course, you volunteer and smile about it while you are at it. No, monitoring should not be regulated. It can’t be. The people doing the monitoring will always be two steps ahead the people doing the regulating,

    The best thing to do about it is be aware that we really do now live in an Orwellian world, are being watched at all times, and behave accordingly.

    If you are unimportant enough, you will not be bothered.

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I fear you are right. I can see a promotion walking out the door for anyone who refuses to be monitored. A department head would be ashamed to report to her/his boss that they can’t control the uncooperative people on their team–the repercussions for those who say “no” make me shiver.

    I worry that people take seriously the results of some of the monitoring—such as the office designer. If he is charged to design an office in which people will look forward to working he will do it one way, without monitoring to back him. Giant tables and low walls that offer no privacy remind me of the desks lined up in vintage films—I think there was such a set in the Jack Lemmon movie “The Apartment.” You can see in a second if someone leaves early or misses a day or spends too much time in the men’s or ladies’ rooms or takes too many smoke breaks.

    The $3,000 increase in restaurant tabs this year won’t increase so as to cover the monitoring cost next year so it will be on shaky legs. Further the people running and analyzing the data will soon be bored and do a crummy job and the fashion to monitor will change. True, it hasn’t for the PACs you mention–they have only gotten bigger and worse. Yet I don’t think I’d invest in the future of a monitoring company that specializes in peeking at office and restaurant workers.

  5. Jackie Herships Said:

    Jackie Herships wrote on Facebook: A nightmare in the making.

  6. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I’ll say. We’re getting it from all sides!

  7. Marie Antoinette Said:

    I wonder how much business the monitoring resturants will lose over the long term as people choose to frequent other establishments in order to get away from feeling pressure to increase consumption of the least nutritious items on the menu (drinks and dessert). My husband and I almost walked out of a one of our favorite resturants last weekend because a new waiter repeatedly asked us if we would like something to drink. The increased revenue to these resturants also will be siphoned away in taxes to pay for the health consequences of all the drink and dessert consumption. I am impressed that the management was able to detect any theft, given the restaurant workers knew they were being monitored. Presumably, the patrons of the resturants are monitored too.

    The most frightening aspect of this is that the younger generations no longer have a concept of privacy, or of not being monitored. Instead of being held and interacted with, even if only by a baby sitter, they have been remotely watched. They conduct their social lives predominately over the Internet where they have a choice to be in denial that they will be embarrassed when running for public office (etc.), or to become hermits, which will also look bad. No wonder they are not breeding!

  8. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Marie A,

    You have the answer: Restaurants will stop monitoring if there’s nobody to monitor. So as folks enter chains especially, ask about monitoring.

    If it’s not already the law a business–restaurant or corporation–should make clear at the front door that it is monitoring the premises and its customers should proceed with caution or not at all. I know I’m dreaming but imagine a large ad or PR agency or accounting firm refusing to attend a meeting at a client’s office because of monitoring.

  9. Donna Boyle Schwartz Said:

    Donna wrote on Facebook: Horrible, just horrible.

  10. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Sad that the public seems so passive and doesn’t understand the implications.

  11. Lucrezia Said:

    Hopefully monitoring as described above will be ruled as unconstitutional. A good manager usually knows who produces best, and doesn’t need a digital device to get such information. In many instances, proper supervision will also reveal thieves.

  12. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Good points, though the system depends on honest managers. The article doesn’t go into why the chains felt they needed to monitor for theft in the first place. Was it that sales/profits ranged so widely from place to place? Suspicion that the branches should be doing better? While it is no excuse, I think that some staffers steal because they feel they’ve been cheated by what they perceive to be wealthy management making millions on their sweat.

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