The Slightly Disgruntled Scientist

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Management by surveillance

The cliché of a large, soulless company — a crowded commute to an office of cubicles as far as the eye can see, micromanagement and HR processes with no basis in logic — is a cliche for a reason. And while some of it could be considered annoying but harmless, and none of it new, it’s also pretty clear that a lot of “modern” corporate practices are firmly rooted in a culture of surveillance, control and mistrust.

I’ve been lucky enough to work in quite a mix of environments, and in each place I’ve put up with policies I didn’t like, because they were balanced out by the good things and that’s life. Almost none of them have been deal-breakers. But it’s always been at least a little bit frustrating, not least because no one responsible for them ever wants to talk about them.

Some of the policies I criticise here might seem… very normal. Reasonable, even. My criticism of them might seem a bit entitled. Well, good. Even the most common practises should be questioned and critiqued, perhaps especially the most common ones, and I dare say it’s a lot less entitled to question a practise than impose it without justification.

Medical certificates

Every place I’ve worked for has had some policy around taking sick leave, and it usually goes: if you take more than eg. two consecutive days of sick leave, you need a medical certificate from a doctor for any more.

So your worker says they have a cold and you don’t believe them. Firstly, holy macaroni you’re a tool. Secondly, how exactly do you think a medical certificate is going to thwart this evil plan of your employee’s? Do you expect the doctor to do a swab for cold bacteria, send it off to the lab, pace around their office until the results come in, circle the incriminating results and yell AAAAAAAAAHA! before loudly and publicly tearing up the unsigned certificate in the face of your conniving employee?

Here’s how a medical diagnosis really works:

  1. Patient describes symptoms.
  2. Doctor agrees those are symptoms of a cold.
  3. DOCTOR PRESCRIBES GOING HOME TO REST.

I could not tell you the number of times I have dragged myself to the doctor because of this idiocy — worsening my own condition, prolonging my absence from work, spreading disease around for no reason whatsoever. I have yet to hear a single practising doctor actually endorse this idea, or indeed express anything but hatred for a policy that is a total waste of their time and attention and is constantly making them sick too.

An employer insisting on this is effectively refusing to trust their employee, but accepting the word of a doctor who is, themselves, trusting their employee. Which means it has nothing to do with trust, it’s just about petty control. A way to remind the employee that even at home, even when taking time to care for themselves and their colleagues, they are under your watch and your rule and must do meaningless busy work at your discretion. Which is a bit sick, really.

Social media

Over the last twenty years private companies and government departments alike have come to realise that their employees (a) can speak their mind on the internet and (b) tend to be lax enough with their privacy to be linked to their employer. (Or (c) stopped giving a hoot about that years ago.) Obviously this sort of nonsense is intolerable to the modern employer and so policies abound telling staff not to be critical of them on social media. Or in private communication. Or when whispering into the deepest well in the middle of a forest.

In the case of government departments (in Australia, at least) this has been quite broadly interpreted to mean that any criticism of the entire government or its policies is a sackable offence. And while some brave folk are pushing back, it’s a pretty lopsided (and neverending) fight.

Having a policy dictating what a worker can post on the internet is as absurd as having a policy dictating what they can eat for dinner. Are they purporting to post on behalf of the organisation? Do their posts indicate a threat to business operations or the safety of their colleagues? Are they abusing access to private or privileged information? If not, there’s simply no case for a policy to even cover this, let alone be enforced.

Oh oh oh, but what if it’s [extremely amateur lawyer voice] ON WORK TIME? Still doesn’t matter, Barrister Bonehead. People can tweet from the damn toilet and you can’t stop them. If you’re okay with them getting up to go for a two minute walk (probably to shake off the open-plan-induced mental fatigue), what do you care if they fire off a post in that time?

Like the medical certificate BS, this is another policy that is premised upon employers having the right to stare into your personal life, your presence on social media as yourself, your opinions in your very head and exert control.

Open plan

(I am including cubicles in this, because they are the same goddamned thing.)

I don’t really care which tradition came first, open plan or closed offices. It doesn’t matter. I do know, from talking to folk many years my senior, that surveillance as a reason for open workspaces was a lot more blatant in times past, with your manager patrolling between rows of desks like a schoolteacher. That employers now try to get staff on board with claims of encouraging collaboration or unity shows a hint of self awareness, that they know they should be ashamed of their zeal to recreate this environment.

Exactly what kind of “collaboration” do you actually think open plan actually fosters? What does being in immediate physical proximity to other people allow you to do that eg. IRC, email or video conferencing does not?

This isn’t a rhetorical question, it has an answer: it allows you to walk up to someone who’s concentrating, stand in their personal space and unilaterally demand their attention. This is a stupid thing to encourage people to do to other people you hired to concentrate on things. It encourages interactions that are totally determined by one party and a total surprise to the other. It is the opposite of collaboration.

Why bother having a hiring process that supposedly selects for a particular set of skills when you’re just going to obliterate those skills with hostile architecture and interactions? How well does anyone work with someone constantly looking over their shoulder? Or talking loudly nearby? Or standing in their peripheral vision? Pretty damn poorly: Tom Morris combs through some references showing the profoundly debilitating effects of open plan, and Alina Manda tweeted a few more for my collection.

Here’s what’s really going on, oh manager: you simply can’t stand the idea that your workers might become so engrossed in their work that they forget, for a brief moment, that they’re being told what to do by someone else. You can’t trust an employee whose monitor you can’t see. You see an office as a status symbol, not an amenity, and therefore as something to deny anyone below you on the org chart. Get over it and let your workers work.

Enforced co-location at all, really

It’s easy to think that attending an office every day is just the normal, default thing for workers to do, even workers who do little else than talk to each other and use a networked computer. Why mess with that?

Imagine the changes we could see in our cities if our public transport didn’t have to cope with massive congestion during the same two hour periods every day. If people didn’t have to do something as dangerous as driving for hours a week. We have designed and built our entire urban infrastructure around what might have been a necessity before the advent of digitised storage and computer networking, but is now almost entirely a corporate whim. Talk about private gains with socialised losses!

If you are a manager who wants collaboration, let your damn team decide how they’re going to communicate, on their own terms, under their own constraints, with each other. Because that’s the definition of collaboration. It might involve working together in the same space all the time, because offices can be nice, but it might not, because getting there might not be. It might involve IRC and Google Hangouts. It might involve mostly email but two days a week of syncing up at the office. AND it might mean that your company now actually has a place for people who need to do the school run every day, or don’t live in the expensive suburbs near the office, or who have a hearing impairment. It might also mean that it’s just a better environment all round for everyone.

If you don’t want them to do that, stop saying you want collaboration. You don’t. You don’t want that at all. You just want to be able to have a watchful eye over your reports. Even if they have to risk car accidents, or go days without seeing their children. Stop even using the word “collaboration”. You’re banned.


What’s the big deal though? So big companies are dire to work for and micromanagement sucks, news at eleven.

It’s this idea that you are totally under your employer’s control while you’re on the clock (or, for that matter, off it) that I just find repugnant. It’s dangerous, and it’s toxic, and it needs to stop.

I accept there’s debate around the social contract of work, but to me, the deal is this: your employer hires you to work for a stated reason. There’s a job, or a goal, or some stated set of skills they want you to apply. The instructions they give you, the constraints they apply, it should all fall within that remit. Otherwise we’re just accepting this idea that a contract of employment is about control, not the negotiated exchange of labour for money.

Surveillance is a way to exert that control, but in a deniable way. It’s about making people anxious enough to moderate their own behaviour, allowing those watching to deny they’re even manipulating people.

Acceptance of this culture opens the door to bullying, sexual harassment and every other form of abuse. No matter what the laws of the land are, when so many people accept that employees surrender their autonomy to their employers, this affects the psychology of people in both positions. The legal contract is utterly ineffective at governing this kind of power while the social contract drives every action.

It’s something that manipulative and violent people can easily exploit. It’s an environment in which marginalised groups are even more vulnerable as workers — because if society still has some undercurrent of you being treated as property and not a person, this is compounded by the attitude that employers also kind of own you while they’re paying you.

Am I being unduly harsh about where this comes from? Is it just the way managers manager, because that’s just… normal? But how long can a corporate culture persist before “it’s normal” ceases to be an excuse? Management is considered a profession in its own right, with things you can learn and research that can guide your decisions. Ignoring evidence or reason so you can keep doing things in a way that just so happens to be how someone obsessed with controlling other people would do it, makes you either a bad manager or… someone obsessed with controlling people. Take your pick.

The fact that the vast majority of employers would rather take substantial hits to productivity than give up otherwise pointless customs of control makes a complete and total lie of any claim, individually or politically, that most just want to get the best out of their workers. For so many of them, their decisions are hugely driven by controlling employees — right up there with their bottom line, their reputation, their contribution to society, they must make their workers know, at any cost… well, who’s boss. It needs to stop, or it needs to be a big part of every debate around industrial relations and business policy, and especially every blatant attempt at rentseeking, until it ends.

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