Since the Industrial Revolution, workers in many industries have feared that their labor could be displaced by new technologies. In the 19th century, it was textile workers and other craftsmen who felt most threatened by labor saving devices such as the power loom; today, service workers are under attack.
That fear has been articulated on the left by theorists such as digital humanities scholar Tamara Kneese, who wrote for Al Jazeera that partially automated service work, using iPads at airports, can “devalue the emotional labor performed by service workers” and make it easier for their managers to surveil them. On the right, groups that oppose raising the minimum wage argue that automation will make fast food clerks too expensive, leading management to replace them with apps and iPads.
Some people developing those apps reject both possibilities. They say their creations won’t devalue service work, but professionalize it. By automating some of the rote tasks associated with service work, tech entrepreneurs argue they’re making those jobs more fulfilling.
So says Larry Gadea, founder of the Silicon Valley startup Envoy. “Any time you can make something more efficient, you absolutely should. There’s always going to be [the criticism] ‘Well, you’re going to be replacing somebody’s job.’ But no, that person isn’t just going to disappear from the world,” he said at a recent panel discussion on the future of work in New York City. “They’re going to do something else, probably something way better.”
Envoy sells an iPad app that automates reception desk check-ins. Rather than feel threatened by the app, Gadea said receptionists have turned into its biggest advocates. Automating the more repetitive elements of their job has given them the freedom to interact with guests in a more engaging manner, he said.
“Instead of just doing the same thing every day, now they can say hello, they can give guests water and they can talk to them about their day, while they do the boring, mundane stuff on the iPad,” he said. “And with Envoy, we try to make that part as interesting and as comprehensive as possible.”
But some academics who study the digital workplace question whether tools like Envoy can improve labor conditions for service workers. UCLA scholar Miriam Posner says that new workplace tools never develop in a vacuum, and management will often deploy them to their own ends regardless of whether that means helping employees flourish.
“I salute the founder’s optimism, but that’s not the way office automation has historically worked,” she said in an email responding to Gadea’s argument. “As a former receptionist myself, I hope he’s right. But given the pressure businesses are under to increase profits, I think the far more likely scenario is that the job formerly allotted to the receptionist will be added to someone else’s workload.”
Sarah Roberts, who teaches information and media studies at Canada’s University of Western Ontario, says that the introduction of further automation into reception work isn’t correlated with how that work is valued.
“It’s not just a question of weighing tasks against each other. There are all these social forces at play,” she said. “Secretary work is feminized work, and women’s work is valued less by society.”
Roberts cited Microtask, which helps companies outsource rote digital labor to workers around the world. That startup also promises to relieve office workers of onerous duties — Microtask’s website says it “loves the work you hate” — but in practice, such platforms do so by redistributing the work to thousands of freelance data janitors.
But Gadea, reached for comment following the panel, said that his claims are supported by the feedback Envoy has received from “thousands of receptionists.”
“We are intensely focused on everyone involved in the sign-in process,” he said in an email. “We want to make their lives easier and clear them to focus on nonmundane tasks. From our feedback, that’s exactly what’s happening.”