The Surveilled Workplace

Posted by jlubans on July 26, 2019

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Caption: The “Coffee Saves the World” team on task.

Apparently, worker surveillance is part and parcel of the so-called gig economy. Thusly claims a BBC report under a tabloid headline: 'We were constantly watched. It felt like we were in prison’
The story’s doubly interesting since it comes from London, the setting for the nightmarish Big-Brother-Is-Watching-You book, George Orwell’s “1984”.
This spring I taught a class at the University of Latvia, Leadership and Literature. That class included a team project to “create and act out your own fable”, along with providing thematic refreshments for the class!
One of the five teams (depicted above) produced a fable for these robotically driven and spied-upon times: “Coffee Saves the World”*
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Caption: World-saving coffee cookies

Here is their fable:
Once upon a time there was an office with several cubicle, as is common.
The office was managed by a mighty computer voice.
When the computer gave a task, everyone had to fulfill it.
This is what it would say:
“Take your places. Put your coffee mug down. Turn on the computer.
Take a daily task sheet. Put it in front of you.
Start the assignment.
Drink your coffee and put it down.
Continue the assignment.
End assignment.
Start the next assignment.”
From time to time it ordered (the workers) to drink coffee.
However, it happened that one of the clerks spilled her coffee on the terminal and the computer voice stopped.
The work stopped as well.
Suddenly, the clerk looked up and noticed the world beyond the cubicle. The birds were singing, the sun was shining.
The window was open; she took in deep breaths of the fresh air and smiled.
After this break away from the computer voice, the clerk returned to her cubicle. She started working on her own.
No voice was needed to succeed, as she managed to do every task faster and in higher quality.
The computer manager realized that happy and independent workers do their job better, so its voice began to fade.


The BBC report details research that spying on workers is de rigueur and on the rise. The list of what’s surveilled grows long: worker correspondence and phone calls, daily production targets met or unmet, key strokes made, tasks performed per minute, and even time spent in the toilet. No doubt someone is working on ways to assess worker mood and attitude and to analyze voice inflection!
What’s the rationale for this hypersurveillance? Managers will be able to more effectively reward or punish workers. Staff, we are assured “will benefit from performance-related pay, enhanced opportunities for progression and a “crackdown on their free-riding co-workers”.
Of course, increased profitability – while not mentioned - is implicit in all of this espionage.
So, McGregor’s Theory X (aka Scientific Management) is back! Apostles of Theory X claim:
“Without (the) active intervention by management, people would be passive – even resistant – to organizational needs. They must therefore be persuaded, rewarded, punished, controlled – their activities must be directed.”
Douglas Murray McGregor’s highly influential work on Theories X and Y was first published in 1960. Was he influenced by Orwell’s book from the previous decade?
His Theory Y posits that “The motivation, the potential for development, the capacity for assuming responsibility, the readiness to direct behavior toward organizational goals are all present in people.”
In any case, Y’s positive assumptions and productive benefits cannot endure under a robot regime.
So, what are these surveillance prone managers being taught or is all this a directive from the C-suite?
Why this dis-trustful embrace of ways to reduce the autonomy and dignity of workers, be they gig workers or full timers?
Why not the other way around? Find trusting ways to promote freedom and responsibility.
Surveillance is pure Theory X; it’s all about autocratic control.
But, the less freedom, the lower the quality and production.
And, we know – as exemplified in the Coffee fable and research - that more freedom at work results in higher and better quality production. Democratic leadership trumps the autocratic kind most every time.

*Coffee Saves the World Team: Antra Upeniece, Viktorija Moskina, and Gunita Eņģele. Used with permission.
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And, my book on democratic workplaces, Leading from the Middle, is available at Amazon.

© Copyright John Lubans 2019

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