The till: helpful technology or tool of management control?
Which till do you go to in a supermarket? As a customer, you will probably choose one with the shortest queue, hoping to be served faster. Have you noticed, though, how your choice affects the employee at the supermarket till? The result of your choice is that the harder they work, the more work they get!
The upshot of till arrangements is to enforce harder and more boring work without management directly “requiring” it. This situation is hidden in a combination of the job description and the physical arrangement of the shop floor. Of course, if everyone worked at the same speed, this might not matter. However, despite large shops operating with set procedures, it is inevitable managers have discretion to allocate work in “crises” (like sudden rushes of customers). Hence work allocation depends as much on managerial favouritism as anything else. And unlike other kinds of discrimination, such as pay gaps, abuse here is hard to prove.
Labour Process Theory examines “micro” systems of management and their effects on worker rewards and satisfaction. For example, how fast people work is part of a more general problem of collective action. If I am selfish, I may slack so that more work goes to other assistants. However, because I am monitored and pressured by customers, I cannot simply stop. Instead I may “pace” my work by positioning shopping to halt the moving belt, reaching for bags of change, rearranging my chair in ways that managers and customers cannot object to and so on. Such acts of resistance to managerial and customer demands need to be covert, but can be noticed and documented using the kind of qualitative training sociologists are given.
Management control is most easily exerted where workers are interchangeable and do not require long periods of training. Eliminating situations that give workers market power over wages and conditions is called deskilling and can be embodied in the design of the till. For instance, if a worker simply has to press a button with a picture of a hamburger or a drink on it (instead of keying in amounts for complex “categories” like food or clothing), they can be trained in no time. Similarly, software that is designed to require each interchangeable worker to “log on” allows management to localise cash shortfalls and monitor whether workers are actually at tills.
Next time you look at a till, you might think about how this familiar object is being used to tighten management control and weakening worker bargaining power. As Peter Berger remarked in Invitation to Sociology: “… the first wisdom of sociology is this: things are not what they seem.” The sociologist cannot say where the boundary should lie between employer and employee rights in the control of work. But without sociological insights into the “non obvious” – the organization of tills and the images on their keys - it is unlikely that such crucial debates will ever reach fair or worthwhile conclusions.