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Warehouse Automation and the Effect on the Workplace

Is the future of warehouse work digital Taylorism? Recall: Taylorism is a reference to scientific management or the intensive time-and-motion studies of Frederic Taylor in the late 19th century intended to improve labor productivity.

While Taylor’s conclusions and methods of productivity study were largely discarded a couple of decades into the 20th century, the idea of applying the rigor of the scientific method to study the workplace endured. Fast forward a hundred years or so, and we may have come full circle.

At least that’s one of the interesting propositions raised by a new study released today by the University of California, Berkeley’s Center for Labor Research and Education: The Future of Warehouse Work: Technological Change in the U.S. Logistics Industry. The 75-page report, summarized in a 3,000-word Executive Summary, examines the types and pace of warehouse automation adoption and how it affects operations, profitability, and the workforce now and what the trends signal for the future.

In one finding, the report uses the term “digital Taylorism” to describe the system of sensors, monitors, and data analysis that has led warehouses to reorient jobsin combination with technologyto find the absolute most efficient way to pick and assemble orders. It notes that in some warehouses, workers are essentially tethered to a robotic cart, “keeping the worker at defined walking and picking speeds, always engaged with the technology and picking process, with constant feedback on their performance.”

Implications for safety and security abound. Whether or not such automation reduces the number of employees—and the report predicts it will not in the short-term, but will in the long-term—it does mean less human-to-human interaction. The report notes this eliminates such positive results as helping others perform a task or problem solving.

Safety and security concerns are generally complex issues that require exactly that kind of problem solving, so processes that limit human interaction work against a workplace culture that embraces safety and security.

The report also notes that the data capture and analysis “has the potential to increase pressure to work quickly, and in the context of the low margins that characterize this industry, productivity becomes paramount and improvements are focused on reducing cost.” The report says this can lead to stress and anxiety among workers while also raising questions about the limits of human physical capacity.

Another recall: One of the downfalls of Taylorism was the Hawthorne Experiments. In an oversimplification, the Hawthorne Experiments found that altering working conditions tended to improve productivity, even if the condition change would logically be expected to decrease productivity. For example, lowering light levels increased productivity. As did increasing light levels.

Interpretations of the Hawthorne Experiments have been challenged and changed over the years, but the overriding point, which is made again in the warehouse study, is: “The assumption that streamlining processes leads in a linear fashion to greater efficiencies, and thus cost reductions, may be fundamentally flawed.”

It goes on: “Gains could be counteracted by new health and safety hazards, as well as, increased employee turnover due to overwork and burnout.”

That culture that embraces the safety and security of the workforce? It rings pretty hollow if the mental and physical health of workers is not a major consideration.