June 4, 2020
If there has been an underlying driver of workplace thinking over the past several decades, it has been a rejection of the principles of scientific management. These begat the idea of the office as a factory, subject to the same rigid times and places of work and the same culture of process, efficiency and productivity. This made a pantomime villain of its key figure Frederick Taylor. The worst adjective you could use to describe a working culture was Taylorist.
In his 1911 book The Principles of Scientific Management Taylor set out his ideas about how to create the most efficient ways of completing specific tasks. Management was needed to allocate tasks to the right people and to monitor their outputs. It was also there to ensure that people weren’t shirking. The workplace cast in the spliced image of factory and panopticon.
The rejection of this kind of working culture was always partial. We may have seen a rise in more enlightened ways of talking about people and their needs at work, but often this was more narrative than practice. The drive for efficiency and fear of shirking is never far away. It’s why one of the big workplace stories for a week or so last year was about a toilet seat tilted so that people wouldn’t spend too much time in the loo when they should be grafting.
The impulse to measure and distrust is never far away and we have more and better tools to act upon it, wherever people might work. This is happening even though we know that when we measure what people do, we change what they do, often encouraging them to work knowingly against the wider objectives of the firm. As the management researcher and author Jerry Z Muller points out, “The most dramatic negative effect of metric fixation is its propensity to incentivise gaming: encouraging professionals to maximise metrics in ways that are at odds with the larger purpose of the organisation”.
Here we go again
Even an ostensibly progressive subject like wellbeing is still essentially reactive. It retains its associations with health and safety, there to minimise and respond to harm rather than improve working life.
So it should come as no surprise to find that the narrative about remote work is dominated by talk of productivity. We may be aware of it more right now, but it has always been evident that people in the right line of work can produce just as many outputs at home as they can in the office. Usually they generate more stuff. It’s worth knowing, but so too is the idea that we were supposed to have grown out of this culture of transactional, time and motion based work.
The whiff of utilitarianism is in the air. We can dust off the the philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s description of the benefits of the Panopticon and repurpose them for what we are told is the ‘new normal’. Morals reformed—health preserved—industry invigorated—instruction diffused—public burthens lightened—Economy seated, as it were, upon a rock—the gordian knot of the poor-law not cut, but untied—all by a simple idea in architecture!
This time the architecture is technological as well as physical. Firms have been panic buying productivity trackers for their newly remote workforces while tech firms are developing new apps and functions in record numbers. In this piece in the New York Times, Adam Satariano describes how one of these apps monitors his behaviour in minute detail.
Ten weeks or whatever into lockdown, many organisations are back to measuring productivity and reducing work to its most basic form. Right, said Fred.
Mark is the publisher of Workplace Insight, IN magazine, Works magazine and is the European Director of Work&Place journal. He has worked in the office design and management sector for over thirty years as a journalist, marketing professional, editor and consultant.