My Boss Is an App
Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by an anonymous source.
In my job, I take all my orders from an app that lives in my iPhone.
I’m an on-demand worker, and my app-boss is the most annoying and mentally taxing supervisor I’ve ever had. But worse, I fear that my app-boss is a preview of how corporations might run workplaces in the future.
I work for a company like Uber, except for groceries (I don’t want to name which one). Instead of giving people rides, I go grocery shopping for people. The app controls every aspect of how I work:
- It gives me instructions on how to do the work
- Tells me where to go
- Tracks where I go
- Rates my performance
Without the app, my job wouldn’t exist. But when you dig into app-driven on-demand work, you uncover a scary new model for managing labor, one where workers toil in isolation and where an algorithm rates human performance in simplistic and erroneous ways.
Robot Performance Reviews
I’ll never forget the first time the app punished me. It was a humiliating and stressful experience, and there was no human that I could turn to for support.
Also, the thing I got in trouble for was just so obnoxious. A customer had ordered one of those premade salad mixes and I picked out the wrong one — I got arugula and spinach when they asked for arugula and kale or something. I lost sleep over this, a mix-up involving salad ingredients.
The app rates performance in three areas — speed, accuracy, and reliability — and uses a series of childish cartoon faces to express whether it approves of your work. The best rating you can get is a green smiling face; the worst is a red frowning face.
So after the salad error, the app told me I had an “issue” and expressed its dismay with a mean-looking orange face — the midway point between green and red.
I’ve made more mistakes since, and right now the app is red-faced and frowning. I know that I need to shop correctly, but shopping for groceries isn’t always as straightforward as the app thinks it is.
Recently, a customer ordered fresh spring rolls, but the store was out, so I replaced them with fried spring rolls. The customer didn’t give out their contact information, so I couldn’t check if they liked my replacement. They ended up complaining, and the app scolded me with that frowny red face. Its only advice to me was, essentially, “Don’t do that.”
On top of pressure to be accurate, the app is always timing you, which turns each shopping trip into a not-fun version of Supermarket Sweep. I’m supposed to spend a maximum of about 2.5 minutes looking for each product. That’s a long time, but 1,000 things can go wrong at the grocery store than can hold you up — a long line at the deli counter or even just a person waffling about which soup they want.
The app can also take your work away. It sends a text to alert you that you have an order to fulfill. If you don’t accept the order within 10 minutes, the app will kick you off shift — essentially sending you home early. Being late is bad, but losing a whole shift at work over 10 minutes?
The one thing that’s still a mystery to me is whether the app can fire you. Like I said, I have a red frowny face rating for my accuracy (or lack of it) right now, but I’m not sure if that means I’m close to being fired.
And that highlights the major problem with the app-boss: it provides very little feedback except “do better.”
The red frowny face will be with me for weeks — imagine how you’d feel if you made a mistake at work and your boss followed you around for two weeks with a scowl on his face? There’s no coaching, no dialogue, just a weird feeling of isolation and, for me, embarrassment. I mean, I have a college degree, but I’m so inept, I can’t pick out the right type of lettuce?
Life could be worse. I actually enjoy grocery shopping. As frustrating as my digital boss is, it’s the larger implications of the app-boss that scare me.
A World Without Humans
It might be amusing to imagine a world without bosses, but my app-boss has made me thankful for the human bosses I’ve had.
Like other machines that have replaced humans (from the printing press to computers), I can see how an app is ideal for squeezing out profit. It works 24/7, never takes a sick day, never talks back, and can simultaneously control hundreds or thousands of workers independently performing complicated tasks. Oh, and it works for free.
It is possible that companies will create apps that can replace managers. At Amazon fulfillment centers, workers carry devices that track their performance in real time and alert them if they’re doing poorly.
On-demand companies have used apps to create new ways to work, but how long will it be before traditional companies like Wal-Mart and McDonald’s start replacing managers with apps? Why pay an unreliable human to do simple tasks like set schedules, order supplies, and discipline poor performers? And if all your employees already have smartphones (which they’re probably using at work to text, anyway), why not put them to good use?
Sounds like a green smiley face for the bottom line and a red frowny face for workers.