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Quantitative Reductionism and the Pandemic of COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused organizations to find different ways to maintain their operations amid calls for increased social distance. In some cases, employees have been asked to work from home in order to reduce the amount of social interaction in the workplace. Due to this emerging distance between these workers and their employers, I suggest that quantitative reduction will become more likely: for these employees, performance will be increasingly unrelated to their social presence in the workplace and more linked to their production metrics. The pandemic will have the effect of bringing about a new age of labour commodification and scientific management.

I approach this forced migration of employees from the workplace to their homes as a person who ordinarily follows the production levels of workers. I performed this job before the emergence of COVID-19. The deadly virus has created an interesting opportunity to observe changes in behaviour relating to deep structural changes to business. The developments that I personally expect include the following: 1) employees will lose their physical presence in the workplace but gain a digital existence; 2) employees will become distanced from routine oversight; 3) and it will be most practical to evaluate employees only through their production metrics. As labour becomes increasingly commodified, companies might start to treat employees more quantitatively – that is to say, disregarding their unique and special attributes. Employee diversity in the workplace will decline along with the diversity of management and decision-making perspectives.

Some suggest that these developments are good for business – serving to clarify the underlying nature of labour in production. Others such as myself note the termination of our social identities in the workplace – heralding higher levels of stress and alienation. Although I follow the performance of workers, I am aware of the hazards of “social distance.” For instance, the temptation is great for the organization to become insulated from its own workforce. Monoculture and conformity will be prevailing mindset. As organization drift away from the realities of its clients and employees, it becomes driven by its preconceptions, much the way an alcoholic might fabricate and interact with their own reality.

It occurred to me – as people started abandoning their desks in preparation for work at home – that the only practical way to assess these workers in the future would be through the data that I collect. In fact, due to the virus, I might find myself influencing the portrayal of a “silent workforce.” This is not to say that I necessarily welcome the responsibility. The problem is that my systems of assessment and reporting were created during a time when the workforce wasn’t silent. Not only this, but in the event of production concerns and issues, it was possible to easily access workers to adjust their behaviours. The physical presence of a supervisor was sometimes enough to encourage workers to exhibit improved performance behaviours.

In this new era of production, the connective tissue binding the many organs of the organization get torn and tangled; and the many body parts that once functioned collectively might begin to regard each other as foreign. We place an expressive demand on data although its capacity for conveyance might in many cases be limited. There is a need to redesign systems of analytics not only to enable the regulation and control workers remotely but also ensure their participation in the expression of management data. Moreover, if the concerns and sentiments of clients only gain expression through a remote workforce, structural insulation of the organization from its employees can contribute to the alienation of clients.

Consider the lived experience of being home and judged primarily by one’s production outcomes. Doesn’t the workflow start to resemble piecework? Think about the perspective of employers forced to evaluate performance only through its established metrics. Doesn’t the employee begin to look like a machine or basic commodity? The employee has no “appearance” or physicality – no longer being physically present. As far as the organization is concerned, these workers could be machines, outside agencies, contractors, or faceless units of labour. The idea of “social distancing” therefore not only leads to greater physical distance; indeed, the distance is genuinely social.

Quantitative reductionism has often been discussed in relation to the introduction of technologies such as production lines and computers. Another level of reductionism is associated with how employees are evaluated: for example, rigid production metrics might focus exclusively on the outcomes of production rather than the spectrum of skills, abilities, and behaviours that workers might be capable of demonstrating. The new reductionism arises from social distancing – manifested in attempts to shift labour away from the physical workplace to the home – or the conversion of the home to the workplace. How interesting this transformative structural development is the product of a global pandemic or deadly virus.

The change might be relatively permanent: working from home will probably help some businesses enhance production. However, the risk from COVID-19 and other deadly viruses in the future seems likely to persist. Those companies that do well amid these structural changes could gain what amounts to a biologically-driven competitive advantage – something practically Darwinian. The corporate landscape stands to transform dramatically in the decades ahead. The nature of labour will transform in response to disease. I have described the “Twilight Market” as those participating in permanently stressful times who find their proximity to death or the risk of dying much closer. COVID-19 has triggered a massive expansion to this market.

In terms of what I expect to find in relation to those forced to work from home due to social distancing, I suggest the following: 1) some individuals will perform well compared to their performance in a group setting; 2) others will perform very poorly; 3) companies will need to gather and follow employee-level stats rather than settle for aggregate operational and business metrics; 4) some companies will impulsively jettison its worst performers; and 5) some managers will try to address individual performance issues analytically. However, I am being optimistic. The sad reality is that the quantitative identities of workers might lead to automated screening processes leading to institutionalized forms of termination. We need to make every effort ensure that the social and data-analytical metamorphosis is balanced, fair, and supportive to meet the broader needs of society.

Exploring Concept of Social Distancing

I want to add some thoughts in relation to the underlying social distancing movement. There is of course a spectrum of possible applications in terms of the amount of distance and its level of totality. Some countries have adopted an extreme version in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19 – actually forcing individuals into isolation. Travel is prohibited. Borders are closed. The movement of people is restricted. Then if all else fails, the average citizen is forced to stay home. Depending on its context, social distancing isn’t really a health “care” policy but a method to gradually sever citizens from care and indeed the rest of society. If people are ill, they might be expected to stay home to recover. After they recover, they could still be required to stay home. Even if people aren’t ill, the same strategy applies. Long before they lose their lives, they lose their livelihoods. Before they die, they disappear.

We should jump over rather than create social barriers. We need to start making use of all available data to search for solutions. For instance, I have been taking the flu shot since my early 20s. I received shots for all types of pneumonia. I have even been vaccinated for shingles. Wouldn’t it be interesting to know which types of individuals on what types of medications having which shots seem to show the most resistance to the virus? Day-to-day life represents a living laboratory that during desperate times should be accessed for data. Long before we confine individuals, we should consider systematically accessing medical data for clues. Not only this, but the types of data collected should be expanded to enhance this method of fighting disease. Society exists through its data. Under the circumstances, it might be necessary to eliminate the “distance” preventing access to detailed medical data.