On the workplace: between myth and reality

When F W Taylor began to give shape to the notion of Scientific Management way back at the start of the 20th Century, he wasn’t solely motivated by a desire to improve productivity through overseers taking control of work processes.

He was also much exercised by something he called “soldiering”, which in contemporary parlance managers might describe as “slacking”. Beyond these pejorative terms, I prefer to interpret this as employees attempting to exercise some control over their work and how it is done.

Much is made of the way in which modern workplaces have left behind the harshness of Taylor’s approach. In the grating noise that surrounds contemporary business, much is made of flat structures, post-bureaucracy, and staff empowerment. To listen to this clatter, one would assume that well all of us work in dramatically reformed workplaces, where the precepts of Scientific Management no longer hold sway.

Two items of news this week tend to counter this view. First, we hear of a toilet maker who has adjusted the pitch of their seats; there is apparently enthusiasm for this in business, as these toilets need the person to brace themselves in position with their legs, a stance that is extremely difficult to sustain.

The excitement seems to arise from the fact that these can be installed in corporate lavatories in order to reduce the time that employees spend in the cubicles, doubtless seeking an extended moment of respite from the drear and grind of their daily work.

I am taking this at face value, of course: some have been moved to wonder whether this is so extreme an idea that it is merely a massive spoof. But we already know that before MaccyD’s rebranded itself as a café, it had sloped shelf seats that sought to discourage lingering and prompted customers to eat and go promptly. Similarly, there is an increased awareness of what is called defensive or hostile architecture, which is actively designed to prevent rough sleeping in its precincts. So, overall, it would be unsurprising if this turns out to be true.

The second item comes to us from an unelected bureaucrat at the very heart of government, pursuing his own extremely personal vision of government, which has never been subjected to any sort of political scrutiny. Dominic Cummings has sent the civil service an instruction to read a book over the holidays, written by the late CEO of Intel, the US tech company.

Amidst the homily and irksome precepts that the author advocates in this wearisome tome, our civil servants will hear about how Andrew Grove’s employees had to sign in if they failed to be at their desks for 0805. If a large number in a given area were signing in on this basis, everyone in that team would have to do it. (I recollect that familiar school day trope of the headteacher demanding that miscreants step forward to take responsibility, otherwise the whole class would face punishment. This goes beyond that by punishing the innocent, despite the fact that the wrongdoers are patently known. I suspect this was an effort to compel the whole team to act as the fierce manager.)

By all accounts, the book is also a paean to the threadbare idea of business process engineering and lean approaches, both of which have the whiff of what is sometimes called Neo-Taylorism about them – and neither of which acknowledge in any meaningful way the humanity that lies at the heart of working together to meet a collective organisational purpose.

Overall, then, despite the range of people and publications telling us that the workplace is in some way qualitatively different – and we must concede that for some that may feel to be the case, of course – for a great many people we are not truly much further on from where we stood 100 years ago.

Hence, the quest for an authentically different form of organisational life that genuinely puts people at its centre continues – and the need to banish the ideological shadows that darken the debate persists, regardless of who is busily propagating them.

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