Scenes from the Office: II. The Supervisor in the Computer

Interview by Rebecca Sharpless

Vol. 10, No. 1, 1988, pp. 10-11

Susan Lowe, age twenty-seven, works with 200 co-workers in the claims department of a large insurance firm in Atlanta. The claims department occupies an entire floor of a downtown high-rise office building. "Claims" employees pass their days filling in forms on video display terminals. Unlike office workers of the past, these workers' pace is set by the computer's capabilities as programmed by management. The supervisor is in the computer. Data, entered by workers at their terminal keyboards, must fit a standardized, regularized format. Workers have little discretion in performing the job, or in the speed with which they must move across the keyboard. As Susan Lowe describes her work, she talks about the monitoring of employees that is possible with computer supervision, including the counting of keystrokes, errors, and time.

SUSAN LOWE: The computer automatically checked the number of claims processed. Every day your manager would get a printout of what you had paid the previous day, and they would post that on a board so that everybody could see what everyone else had done.

About six months to a year after they installed the computer system they had a management consulting firm come in and do a little stopwatch timing on people for paying claims. Before that, you had your quota of fifty claims a day. When they did this little stopwatch study, they determined that certain claims were not really worth as much as other claims. And so they put a value on the different kinds of claims-for example, a drug bill. A drug bill is a pretty easy thing to pay; you put in the code, the date, the amount, and you paid it. And you always paid drug claims to the claimant, so it was a pretty simple claim to pay. You got a .4 for that. If it was a hospital bill, that could be a little bit more complicated because there could be ten pages worth of charges, and you get maybe 1.2 for that. So they had what they called work units.

For the first six months to a year after they went on this work unit thing, they didn't tell us what a work unit was. They didn't tell us that a drug claim was only worth .4 and a hospital bill was worth 1.2. They just said, instead of being the number of claims per day that we paid, the computer was now spitting out how many work units per day you're doing. And there didn't seem to be any correlation-we couldn't figure it out, at any rate-any correlation between the number of claims you paid and the number that appeared on the sheet every day saying how much you worked the day before. And that in itself was kind of depressing, when you don't know what it is that you're doing or not doing that's affecting your performance.

They also, when they went to this work unit system, went to a little different system of salary increases. Before, we were reviewed once a year and given basically a merit raise, and we were also given cost-of-living raises automatically. And on the new system they kind of did away with these; well, they didn't do away completely with the cost-of-living raises, but what it was, was that every six months they would take your cumulative total of work units and determine how much you would get paid for that six-month period. And then at the end of six months you would be reviewed again and if your production went down, your salary would drop. If your production went up, your salary would increase.

You kind of were walking a fine line all the time as to how much you were going to get paid. You couldn't really count on a salary. If you had to go out and buy a new car and you were making $425 a week, you couldn't guarantee that in six months you'd still be making that. You might drop down to $375 a week. That fifty bucks might be-and some people live on the edge like that, too. So that was kind of a hairy situation.

A lot of people weren't real happy with that. I know I wasn't real happy with that, because I was scared. I never went down; I stayed exactly the same all the time. I was consistent. But to me it was real stressful, worrying, and to me, I would have been embarrassed if my salary dropped. To me, that would have been a horrible thing to have to happen. It happened to a number of people; maybe about one quarter of the people had that happen. You get pretty consistent; most people would stay about the same.

But some people would just knock themselves out for six months and they'd get this huge salary increase. They paid very well for the industry; we were the top-paid for the city of Atlanta in our industry. So that part of it was good. But again, you had to deal with this stress all the time of, okay, I did it for this six months, and you'd kill yourself to do it for that six months, and you just can't keep that up. I couldn't, and that's why I never really did that. I never really tore into something and worked twice as long.

A lot of people used to come in early and pre-process claims so that when they started work for the day they'd just type. They'd be just basically typing; they wouldn't be doing any decision-making during the day. And they allowed you to do that. If you wanted to come in early and sit at your desk and do whatever you wanted to do, you could do it.

[Piecework] is how I felt about it. I liked what I was doing; I liked paying claims and everything. I thought it was interesting. But I was just real stressed out in that kind of environment. And it set up like this competition, I mean the fact that they posted these things on the board every day; it set up this real cutthroat, to some people, competition. They would dig through claims and look for all the easy ones and shove this pile of crap back in the claims drawer. People picked through stuff and put it back and things like that. It affected the atmosphere of the office because of that.

The quota with work units was still basically the same, I think. It went up, but it went up to like sixty. You had to do sixty work units a day, which, come to think of it, that would have translated to about seventy, seventy-five claims a day. So it went up by half. So you did have to process more claims in order to stay at the level you were before.

I don't think they ever fired anybody for not producing. Once they went onto that salary based on your work units, people just either left because they weren't doing real well-and normally that's what happened, because if you weren't doing real well-the salary ranged from like $210 to like $425. There was this huge range depending on what your production was. And people who were in the lower ranges making around two hundred dollars a week could go elsewhere. And so they did. And so basically I don't think they ever really fired anybody for not making their quota because they didn't make very much money, and they left on their own.

One thing that I did a lot when I worked on that job that I could kick myself for doing, was that-and I think that it contributed worse to my stress-out, really-was that I would come in-we were on flex hour time [although the computer limited the amount of flex time]. And what I started doing was, I'd be there at seven o'clock in the morning and I'd stay there until five or after five at night. To me, when I stretched it out a little bit, I was basically doing the same amount of work, but I didn't feel as pressured in as short a period of time. So to me, I'd come in and I'd pre-process a bunch of claims before I'd actually get on the system in the mornings. And I'd do my work and then at the end of the day I'd do that extra few more claims, just put in a little bit more before the end of the day so that I'd be sure that I'd have my quota for the day.

Like I said, I didn't fluctuate wildly; I was consistent about the number of claims that I paid per day or the number of work units that I did per day so that at the end of the six- month period I didn't have to try to play catch-up. I tried to consistently do the same amount each day. So at the end of the day I'd throw in a few more, for good measure, basically, just to make sure I wasn't going to lose my salary when the six-month review came around.

So that was one of my coping devices; like I said, I don't know if it helped things at all. It just felt to me like I was relieved a little bit more. But then again, I was spending an extra hour or more a day in this stress-out situation. So I really don't think it helped, although it seemed to psychologically make me feel a little bit better that I wasn't so wired when I was there.

Rebecca Sharpless is a student at Emory University's Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts.