WFH requires a paradigm shift in how we think of work, job autonomy and cooperation

The dramatic and massive shift toward work-from-home (WFH) arrangements in the spring of 2020 has the potential to upset long-held ideas of how work should be organised. But too often it has led to more intrusive surveillance in the virtual workplace. Bob Hancké reflects on this tension between monitoring and productivity. Unless we rethink work from the bottom up and redesign tasks into projects with increased team autonomy, organisations are unlikely to reap the benefits of remote working.

A chilling article in the Guardian on 27 September (with the cynical but admittedly amusing title ‘Shirking from home’) reported a significant increase in surveillance software by employers to monitor work from home (WFH). The usual argument for enhanced surveillance is akin to other prejudices, such as the immigrant crime networks (more autochthonous are in jail), welfare tourism (fewer immigrants draw welfare benefits and they actually are net contributors to every economy where they are), or the doctor’s wife who has a nice little side income in unemployment benefits: while such cases may well exist, they distract from the fact that UB are crucial lifelines for almost all unemployed. So: perhaps some of us shirk when WFH; but most of us simply don’t shave or put on casual clothing and get on with the job, very often using the hours of commuting gained to work a bit longer – but in their own time (kids are NIS –Not in School—and need attention and food).

Leaving aside the non-trivial privacy and human rights implications, it shows that many employers get the problem the wrong way around. WFH should not be WIO (work in office) but from home. Instead of keeping tabs on hours worked, employers should think about reconfiguring tasks and work so that employees have a clearer sense of what needs to be done, by when, and with whom. Instead of monitoring the hours that employees put in, bosses should think more deeply about how to redesign work into projects, ie bundles of meaningful tasks, for individual employees and teams. Redesigning organisations to transfer responsibility and autonomy to their workforce should be their main job. Teaching them to devise a division of labour in their teams should be one of their main training goals. In short, making employees project managers instead of WFH.

But that all would require a very different conception of education and training, hierarchy and collaboration, and it is far from clear if employers are able to release themselves of the quasi-feudal remnants of work that crept into the capitalist division of labour. Ultimately, you would think, the most profitable (because most productive) company will win out; if WFH in redesigned virtual workplaces is more productive, then these will win. But that counterargument misses the point that a cartel of reactionary bosses might stop precisely that. And shallow, chopped-up tasks beget more surveillance – not because it is intrinsically necessary but because detailed monitoring requires shallow, fragmented work.

Almost fifty years ago, the great Harvard economist Steve Marglin spent over 70 pages analysing what bosses do. His answer: remarkably little that employees could not do on their own. And the great British sociologists Robin Blackburn and Michael Mann demonstrated, statistical analysis in hand, that workers used more and more sophisticated skills driving to their workplace than they would ever use once they arrived there. Things have undoubtedly improved (I hope), but as the newspaper article suggests, not nearly as much as we would like to think. Let’s use the next WFH wave (coming soon to a house near you) to redesign work so employees work better, smarter and with a larger and deeper sense of purpose.

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