How to treat employees like prisoners

19 May

During this time of pandemic, one small corner of the economy is doing morbidly well: employee surveillance software.


“Identify your team's superstars, time-thieving slackers and in-betweeners”

“Take continuous screenshots of employee workstations at intervals you set”

“When remote workers know they are being monitored … they are less likely to give in to distractions or make excuses for missed deadlines and sloppy work”


This is not a parody. Those are actual quotes from an employee monitoring company’s website.

The pandemic is creating a small boon for employee monitoring companies¹. It seems that a lot of managers are deploying surveillance solutions to crack down on ‘time-thieving’ remote workers. They are also generating an unwarranted climate of oppression.

Employee monitoring software is highly invasive. It can record all of a worker’s emails, instant messages, social media usage, web page visitations and keystrokes. On cell phones, it can map a worker’s exact movements via GPS. Alerts for certain activities can be set up and graphical “productive time vs non-productive time” reports can be generated. If desired, all the worker’s surveillance data, including continuous screenshots, can be played back like a movie to reveal exactly how they spent their day, juxtaposed against an activity log with details of actions to make it easy to search through.


Enter the Digital Panopticon

In the 18th century, utilitarianist Jeremy Bentham designed the 'ideal prison': the Panopticon. It was a doughnut-shaped building with a single guard tower in the centre. Each prison cell had a cage facing the centre so the guards could easily observe the prisoners, with zero privacy, without interruption.

But the real genius of Bentham's design was the use of "blinds, and other contrivances" ² to render the inspectors invisible to prisoners. The prisoners never know if they are being watched or not. Over time, the threat of constant observation leads to internalisation and reduces the need for discipline, so that finally, 'discipline, regulation, and surveillance are taken for granted'.³

The efficiency of Bentham’s monstrosity generated considerable interest at the time, despite the dehumanising aspects of its aspiration. As philosopher Michel Foucault put it, ”All that is needed, then, is to place a supervisor in a central tower and to shut up in each cell a madman, a patient, a condemned man, a worker or a schoolboy. He is seen, but he does not see; he is the object of information, never a subject in communication.” ⁴

Foucault used the panopticon as a metaphor for the modern disciplinary society in his epic thesis, Discipline and Punish: The birth of the prison. He argued that “Bentham laid down the principle that power should be visible and unverifiable. Visible: the inmate will constantly have before his eyes the tall outline of the central tower from which he is spied upon. Unverifiable: the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at at any one moment, but he must be sure that he may always be so.

Of course, with digital panopticons, there is no tower, just omniscient software. And as long as our devices are on, we can not be turned away from it. Workers are always under its gaze. As Foucault explains, constant surveillance is a very effective technology of oppression: “He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection.


Work/non-work boundary creep

No doubt, some managers are thinking “but how do we know employees aren’t slacking off?”. Boundary control, the various ways in which managers cajole, encourage, coerce, or otherwise influence the amount of time employees physically spend in the workplace, has been a longstanding management topic. Traditional methods focused on ensuring physical presence through various rules, devices and norms.

But with digital surveillance, organisations exert boundary control by shaping an individual’s moment-by-moment attention⁵. All privacy, even the privacy of one’s personal interactions, now falls under the gaze of the supervisor.

In addition, many employees are conditioned to answer emails and take phone calls at practically any hour. There are also reports that some managers are insisting that employees turn the video on during conferences, even if the employee does not have a private workspace in their home. The panopticon is complete: there is no private space, physical or mental, in which the employee is not subjected to the gaze and judgment of their superior.


The ultimate demotivator

Deploying a digital panopticon is about the most efficient way I can think of to engender widespread demotivation and mistrust. It should be obvious, but here are a couple of quotes:


"Think of the last time you were at work and your boss walked into the room. Did you straighten up and work harder in their presence? Now imagine they were always in the room. They wouldn’t be watching you all the time, but you’d know they were there. This is the power of constant surveillance – and the power of the panopticon." — The Ethics Centre⁶

“It’s really demoralizing to feel like you’ve done good work for a company, maybe for years, and have a solid, reliable track record, and they’re treating you as if you’re going to spend your day drinking beer and watching YouTube. People don’t work well under that kind of scrutiny, even in the best of times.” — Alison Green⁷


In conclusion, if you want to treat your employees like prisoners, then go ahead and deploy employee monitoring software. If, however, you wish to treat them like responsible human beings, then avoid activity monitoring like the plague.



Footnotes and References

  1. There are many reports of spikes in employee monitoring software sales precipitated by the COVID-19 pandemic. There are good articles in The Washington Post and the New York Times. The Insight Partners offer a detailed report on the category.
  2. Jeremy Bentham. 1791. Panopticon, or The Inspection House
  3. Zuboff, Shoshana. 1988. In the age of the smart machine: The future of work and power. New York: Basic Books. As cited in McKinlay, Alan, and Ken Starkey. 2013. Foucault, Management and organization theory: From panopticon to technologies of self. Milton Keynes UK: Lightning Source UK.
  4. Foucault, Michel. 1995. Discipline and punish: the birth of the prison. New York: Vintage Books.
  5. Stanko, Taryn L., and Christine M. Beckman. 2015. "Watching You Watching Me: Boundary Control and Capturing Attention in the Context of Ubiquitous Technology Use". Academy of Management Journal. 58 (3): 712-738
  6. The Ethics Centre. 2017. Ethics Explainer: The Panopticon
  7. Management blogger Alison Green, as cited in Work From Home Surveillance, Washington Post, 30 April 2020


Posted by John Dobbin