The workplace according to Autocomplete

Wednesday 17 February 2016

A women sits at her work desk looking stressed

In summary

  • Analysis for ABC's The Drum by Agustin Chevez, adjunct research fellow, Swinburne University of Technology

If you have used Google, you are most likely familiar with "Autocomplete", the feature that completes search terms as you type. (Or "the computational equivalent of the real-world smartarse who finishes other people's sentences for them.")

Autocomplete has captivated people's imagination and inspired games like Google Feud, a version of Family Feud based not on what 100 people said but Google's previous searches. Others have used Autocomplete to create poems from the sometimes 'profound' meanings of the top four suggestions.

Researchers from the Department of Linguistics and English Language at Lancaster University used Autocomplete to study the perpetuation of stereotypes and inadvertent consequences of search algorithms. Others use Autocomplete to assess political, social and economic sentiment.

As a workplace researcher interested in understanding people and their workplaces, I was curious to know how Google would complete phrases like "my workplace is...", "my job is...", "going to work is...", and "my workmates...".

In October 2014, I typed the above terms into Google and the top suggestions were: "my workplace is making me sick", "my job is so boring", "going to work is depressing" and "my workmates don't like me". I repeated the same process every month for a year.

What did I discover at the end of the study?

That 'my workplace' is unsafe; my workmates don't like me; my boss hates me; my job is boring; going to work is depressing; and work is making you numb.

The table below shows the top three suggestions of the study across the 12 months. 

 My workplace is:My workmates:My boss*:Going to work is*:Work is*:My job is:
1st unsafe don't like me hates me depressing making you numb boring
2nd making me sick hate me is lazy a waste of time stressing me out so boring
3rd toxic are lazy is bullying me - depressing killing me


It should be noted that some Autocomplete suggestions were removed because they were unrelated to the study. For example, the phrase "my boss is..." was completed with "my hero" as the top suggestion. However, this was not the sentiment held by employees towards their managers, but the result of there being a popular 2001 South Korean film named "My boss, my hero".

It cannot be concluded from my study that workplaces are "unsafe", for instance, simply because this was the most prevalent Autocomplete suggestion.

But my study nevertheless gives us a glimpse into the mindsets of those who Google about their jobs.

Autocomplete points to a prevailing dissatisfaction in workplaces. Other studies support these negative sentiments. A Gallup study found that the majority of US employees (51 per cent) are not engaged in their jobs and 18 per cent are actively disengaged.

It would be a mistake to think there's a simple solution to this. For instance, office design can contribute to attracting and retaining staff in organisations, and can even help build trust between employees and the organisation. However, this alone won't solve the problem: a multi-disciplinary approach is needed.

So will we ever see Autocomplete suggestions like "my workplace is making me giddy with excitement" or "my boss is a legend"?

That might be overly optimistic. Judging by recent reports from the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA) and the World Economic Forum, we're more likely to see a future where people are searching "My boss is a computer".

Written by Dr Agustin Chevez, adjunct research fellow, Swinburne University of Technology. This article was originally published on ABC's The Drum. Read the original article