Hybrid working? Let’s put on a show

hybrid working performanceI’m currently rereading Art Kleiner’s masterful book The Age of Heretics which describes the history of ground-breaking thought in management in the 20th Century and the lessons we forget. It remains a relevant book for the new era of ‘hybrid working’ because the book draws a distinction between two fundamental schools of thought in management theory. One of these sees management as a numbers game in which people are inherently problematic and so must be directed what to do based on data and routines of desirable activity and behaviour. And the other sees people as well meaning, capable and adaptable with managers there to facilitate and channel their abilities and help them develop.

The former kind of thinking endures, of course. And for those who pathologise the office and romanticise remote work, it is baked into the bricks and mortar of archaic places of work. There is some validity to this viewpoint, especially as we continue to witness the tedious, daft demands of some bufton-tuftons that people should get ‘back to the office’.

Then again, the same mindset that exposed us to the stare of scientific management is now drawn to the lidless eye of technology to gaze into our shrivelled minds. Especially now work has colonised every corner and second of our lives.

As this piece in the Washington Post describes, some workers are now asked to open themselves up to unacceptable levels of surveillance and monitoring. And not just of their work. Some of the technological intrusiveness extends to their personal lives.

“When Kerrie Krutchik, an attorney for 34 years, was hired this spring for one of the legal field’s fastest-growing jobs, she expected to review case files at a pandemic-safe distance from the comfort of her Ohio home.

“Then she received a laptop in the mail with her instructions: To get paid, she’d have to comply with a company-mandated facial recognition system for every minute of her contract. If she looked away for too many seconds or shifted in her chair, she’d have to scan her face back in from three separate angles, a process she ended up doing several times a day.”

“For Krutchik, the laptop’s unblinking little camera light quickly became a nightmare — and a reminder of what her new workday might look like even after the pandemic fades. After two weeks, she ended her contract and pledged never to consent to that kind of monitoring again.”

Remote work is also driving an upsurge in performative work according to this article in The Economist.

“Theatre has always been an important part of the workplace. Open communication is a prerequisite of successful remote working. But the prevalence of performative work is bad news—not just for the George Costanzas of the world, who can no longer truly tune out, but also for employees who have to catch up on actual tasks once the show is over. By extension it is also bad for productivity. Why, then, does it persist?

“One answer lies in the natural desire of employees to demonstrate how hard they are working, like bowerbirds with a keyboard. Another lies in managers’ need to see what everyone is up to. And a third is hinted at in recent research, from academics at two French business schools, which found that white-collar professionals are drawn to a level of “optimal busyness”, which neither overwhelms them nor leaves them with much time to think. Rushing from meeting to meeting, triaging emails and hitting a succession of small deadlines can deliver a buzz, even if nothing much is actually being achieved. The performance is what counts.”


Unintended consequences

This year may give us a chance to finally unpick the long-term consequences of the last two years. One thing we should hope to see the back of is the idea of a ‘new normal’. The people who use this tiresome idea unironically are invariably describing their own experiences and preferences, and those of people like them.

As the journalist Marie LeConte pointed out on Twitter recently, even at the height of lockdown, over half of working people in the UK were not working from home.

Similarly, all the talk of The Great Resignation masks the fact that there are other structural changes talking place in the Labour market other than skilled workers jacking it in to find something better. In the UK at least, the much-reported tight Labour market is primarily down to people dropping out completely. Economic inactivity — people who are not in work and not looking for it — is up by more than 400,000 and rising.

There has also been a fall in the number of self-employed, according to the ONS. This is because of a collapse in self-employment, which has fallen by 815,000 to just over 4.2 million compared with pre-pandemic levels. This is a fall of 16 percent and would suggest people are not leaving their jobs in search of the empowerment of self-employment. If anything, they seem to be taking on jobs to address the insecurity of self-employment and the ‘gig economy’.