Coding the Panopticon


If a progressive approach to people management is to mean anything at all, it has to find a way to replace the keystone of control with a new foundation of enablement. For all our theorising though, the surveillance led approach to management is building every day as new tech collides with old approaches to command structures.

For those not familiar with Bentham’s concept of the Panopticon you can read a good overview here. In brief, the Panopticon is a design for a penitentiary in which the prison cells are arranged in a circular way facing inwards towards a central point. That central point is occupied by a tower from which a single prison guard can observe the prisoners in their cells. The power of the design is not simply that the guard can – at any point – choose to view any prisoner; the power is that the prisoners know they may be being observed at any point without ever being sure. This complete removal of any possible sense of privacy is what gives the Panopticon guard his total advantage over the incarcerated.

When we look at modern workplaces we can see the dangers of deliberately or inadvertently building this tower and creating the same sense of a constant, unending power imbalance. We will all have heard stories about workmen being phoned at home at 8:35 in the morning because their van hadn’t moved and they should have been on the road by 8:30. I heard a great one recently of an engineer sitting in his van on a customer’s drive for 40 minutes after he had completed a job so that he didn’t become ‘available’ on the central monitoring and tracking system for another job so shortly before his normal going home time. We know about surveillance cameras in the cabs of haulage lorries and tracking chips with taxis. We know too that this is happening increasingly with community based healthcare practitioners.

I worked for a time with doctors and nurses in a busy Emergency Department in a large Hospital and was given permission to undertake a ‘cultural audit’ of the Department. I was determined not to use any kind of survey, questionnaire or other approach based on converting real thoughts and feelings into numbers. Instead, I met people, made them a coffee and listened to them. I expected to hear about the stress of the role – the challenge of dealing with life and death not only sometimes, but on a regular basis; on a daily basis. I thought I would hear about the lack of resources, the stress of targets and the inadequacy of the equipment they had to use. Although these themes were touched on, they were mentioned almost in passing. Two main themes came out of that work. The first was about relationships, the ones that were helpful and worked well and the ones that were poor. The second theme was surveillance.

It is worth saying that I was doing this work at a point where real time information was becoming available in hospitals at the same time that mobile devices (iPads in this case) were becoming common. The third ingredient was a new focus on performance against the 4 hour target for patients to be seen by a doctor after arriving in the Emergency Department. The result of this was that managers across the organisation were not only coming into the Department to view wait times but were able to view that data in real time from their offices, homes and, in one memorable case, a garden whilst the senior manager was barbecuing. This would inevitably lead to senior managers running down to the Emergency Department or phoning to ask the staff what was happening with Patient ‘x’ who had been in the Department for 3 hours 45 minutes, or had they spotted Patient ‘y’ who was just about to ‘breach’.

The doctors and nurses told me of the stress that arose directly from doing an incredibly difficult and emotional job with “somebody leaning over your shoulder” not helping, but frequently making suggestions, criticising, or commenting. As in the Panopticon, they also had no way of knowing when their ‘performance’ was being watched and when it wasn’t. I was told that doctors and nurses are used to fast paced, complex emotional work. They can deal with that. It is stressful in the moment but it is a natural kind of stress which they can switch off when they are finished. It was the stress of constant surveillance that they couldn’t deal with. That went deeper. These people didn’t want to hide or slack off, they wanted to do their work in peace without distractions and without the sense of powerlessness that can arise from permanent surveillance.

If we are to embrace one principle it is this: Surveillance of workers is, in itself, stress inducing. Just as the Panopticon aimed to control by building this new concept of perpetual observation, we are in danger of coding a new panopticon. This is not an argument for never looking at what workers are doing, it is an argument for understanding the enormous value of – whenever possible – pulling down the blinds and switching off the cameras. If we are to reduce power imbalances in organisations it will only be through a more sophisticated approach to exercising power in this sensitive area. We don’t improve productivity and innovation through control, we do that through enablement.



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