The workplace as prison

There is a buoyant atmosphere afoot in the UK as the perception that the pandemic is in some way coming to an end takes hold. (A glance beyond our shores should underscore that this is far from the case – and it should reinforce for us all the WHO observation that none of us is safe until all of us are safe.)

Despite much having been made over the past 12+ months of a sea change in terms of flexibility around work, a shift that many felt was something permanent that would not be undone, some managers and leaders – in terms of assuaging their own anxieties and justifying what they feel they are expected to contribute in the workplace – are seemingly now taking a different view.

Some enlightened employers have sloughed off their real estate, acknowledged the trust they have in their workforce, and stated that work can and should be done flexibly, in terms of patterns and locations. The more benighted are chomping at the bit to rush their workforces back into offices. This despite the lip service paid to ideas of health and well-being, particularly during the most recent period.

As a counterpoint to this, the TUC is offering detailed guidance on how the risk to people of a return to work in current circumstances should be managed. A recent document expressly argues the following:

[T]he TUC notes that the guidance on working from home has not changed. Everyone who can work from home should continue to do so until at least 21 June. Employers should assess the ability to work from home at the level of individual jobs, and should not require workers to travel to workplaces where they do desk-based jobs, even in sectors that are allowed to be open.

TUC (2021) A Safe Return to the Workplace.

It has been clear across the course of the pandemic that there are both myriad benefits and drawbacks for people who have been able to work remotely during the last year. This seems as though it can be condensed down into two themes: first, remote working has left people feeling as though they are more in control of their work and their lives; but, second, there has been a deleterious blurring of the boundary between work and life – and there has been a loss of connection to those with whom one works. Moreover, a recent review of research on this matter drew the following conclusions as to how some of the concerns might be sensibly offset:

The health/work relationship is complex and requires consideration of broader system factors to optimise the effects of WAH on workers’ health. It is likely mandated WAH will continue to some degree for the foreseeable future; organisations will need to implement formalised WAH policies that consider work-home boundary management support, role clarity, workload, performance indicators, technical support, facilitation of co-worker networking, and training for managers.

Oakman, J., Kinsman, N., Stuckey, R. et al (2020) A rapid review of mental and physical health effects of working at home: how do we optimise health? BMC Public Health 20, 1825.

This seems to suggest that organisations could usefully open up a dialogue with their staff on the hybridisation of the workplace, a conversation that seeks to meet the needs of all the individuals involved by seeking to generate a genuinely new way of working. This, of course, would take a lot of hard work. Instead, many unsophisticated leaders – anxious about what feels like a lack of control and eager to justify their role as overseer – simply want to drag their workforces back into the office.

As is apparent, this says more about their fragile sense of purpose and worth than it does about meeting the specific needs of all of their people – and, indeed, of their business. It reinforces leadership as a practice that is undergirded by surveillant activity as opposed to genuine trust and authentic engagement. The forced march back to the office is a signal that little has changed despite our experiences of the past year – and the clamour about a “new” or “next” normal arising out of the disruption was just ideological noise to placate us.

Just over two hundred years ago, Charles Lamb made the following poignant and painful observation, in his poem entitled “Work”:

Who first invented work, and bound the free

And holyday-rejoicing spirit down

To the ever-haunting importunity

Of business in the green fields, and the town—

To plough, loom, anvil, spade—and oh! most sad,

To that dry drudgery at the desk’s dead wood?

This rupture offers an opportunity not merely to discuss our places of work but rather how we feel about work in and of itself at this time. In this regard, an article about work and alienation published in 2020 opened with this insightful declaration that is likely to resonate with many people,

Work organizations have long employed various management techniques in order to maximize workers’ engagement, which in itself implies that ‘alienation’ at work is common.

Kociatkiewicz J, Kostera M & Parker M (2020) The possibility of disalienated labour: Being at home in alternative organisations. Human Relations.

Quite simply, you only have to be concerned about artificially generating engagement among your staff if what you are asking them to do – and where you invite them to do it – is in itself unengaging. In essence, to date we have largely suffered the drudgery of paid employment in silence, except among those close to us with whom we feel it is safe to speak with candour.

In light of this, our current context represents a major opportunity for a multi-faceted conversation about work, in terms of what it is we do, how it is we do, and where it might best be done.

To avoid this is merely to opt to recreate – and ceaselessly reproduce – the past. And it reflects more on an incipient crisis in the nature of what we call leadership in corporate life than on actual structural constraints in organisational life.

If a leader feels a need to scrutinise their staff, to breath down their necks as they try to get their work done, and to constantly direct them, rather than seeking to release their talents, then they are not leading, they are simply hubristically seeking to control things and people around them. One is then compelled to surmise that this is probably with the sole aim of self-preservation and reproduction of a status quo that personally serves them and barely anybody else.

Instead of seeking to clutch the world closely to their chest, the enlightened leader should aim to let go. And one element of that release – liberating for both them and those around them – would be to convene and support a meaningful conversation with people about work.

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close