May 4, 2023
The final word? Of course not. Five years ago this month, we published an article that described how the quest for productivity had been supplanted almost entirely by a new emphasis on workplace wellbeing. It was the final nail in the coffin of scientific management and its central notion of the office as a factory, subject to rigid times and places of work and manufacturing’s culture of process, efficiency and productivity. The office a splice of factory and panopticon.
Management was needed primarily to allocate tasks to the right people and to monitor their outputs and pass them on to decision makers. It was also there to ensure that people weren’t shirking, the original sin of Taylorism.
“We’ve known for some time what makes people happy and productive at work and much of the new research has served to prove something we already knew,” we wrote. “This quest has mutated over the past few years into something that is at first glance only slightly different but which has some rather interesting implications. The go-to workplace topic of the early 21st Century is no longer productivity, but wellbeing, and that is making all the difference.”
So well established was this notion that a backlash had already started to form. In a book called The Wellness Syndrome, the authors Andre Spicer and Carl Cederström claimed that the fixation with monitoring workplace wellbeing and initiating wellness programmes was having the opposite effect to that intended. The book argues that an obsession with wellness obliges some people to pretend to be happy at work, even when they are not and that the pressure to fit with a corporate notion of what constitutes a ‘well’ person makes them depressed and anxious.
Two years later, this quest for a new grail was to be swept away by the pandemic. The new narrative about remote work was dominated by talk of productivity. We became more generally aware of the truism that people in the right line of work can produce just as many outputs at home as they can in the office. Often 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 back in the air. We can dust off 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 buying productivity trackers for their newly remote workforces while tech firms are developing new apps and functions in record numbers. Many organisations are back to measuring productivity and reducing work to its most basic form just as they might a hundred years ago.
This feature is taken from the latest issue of IN Magazine
Image: A detail from The Damsel of the Sanct Grael by Dante Gabriel Rossetti