Robots aren’t taking warehouse employees’ jobs, they’re making their work harder

" In the past few years, some have wildly speculated about how automation will eliminate wide swathes of the US job market, leaving masses of unemployed, frustrated workers. It’s an issue that’s raised enough concern that 2020 Democratic presidential candidates spent a good amount of time arguing about it in the last debate.

But while it’s unclear how many jobs automation will eventually replace and when it might happen, a new study looks at something more measurable: how new technologies are changing workers’ day-to-day jobs right now.

According to a new report by researchers at the University of Illinois that focused on warehouse work automation and was shared exclusively with Recode, emerging technologies aren’t actually going to replace the over 1 million warehouse workers in the US anytime soon. But over the next 10 years, the technology may make their lives harder.

The report says technology can intensify warehouse work in two main ways. The first is by limiting the amount of human interaction, including in cases where employees can help each other. The second is by allowing the “micromanagement of work tasks at an unprecedented scale.”

That’s because many of these new machines are dissecting workers’ every move — like sensors that measure the time it takes a worker to reach a location where they can pick up an item, scan a label, select a product, and place it in a bin.

These sensors are then linked to algorithmic warehouse management systems on the backend that “track, analyze, and inform workers about their performance” in real time, measuring them against their colleagues and setting more aggressive goals. The unprecedented granularity of this data has the potential to pressure workers to perform tasks more quickly.

“Warehouse workers didn’t have a ton of autonomy to begin with, but this is a whole new level of tracking and management,” Gutelius said."

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