“If they’re not in the office, how will I know if they’re working or not?” Surprisingly, I still often hear some version of this question from managers in organizations.
It reminds me of the panopticon, a concept that was originally devised in 1786 by philosopher Jeremy Bentham as a prison layout. The word derives from the Greek word for “all seeing” – panoptes. The main idea is to build a central tower surrounded by cells where prisoners can be observed at all times,. But they can’t see if they are being watched or not. Although it is physically impossible for a single guard in the tower to observe all the inmates’ cells at once, the fact that the inmates cannot know when they are being watched motivates them to act as though they are all being watched at all times.
I am convinced that the managers who believe that employees only work when they are in the office must think of the workplace as a panopticon. Imagine a big workspace with a tall observation tower in the middle, surrounded by individual cubicles where employees sit and work. The manager is in the tower with his binoculars and clipboard. And because it is difficult for employees to know if they are being watched or not, they are motivated to get their jobs done. Sounds pretty foolish, doesn’t it?
The workplace should never be a panopticon!
It’s also a lousy way to lead! Not only is it demotivating for employees to feel like they are constantly under scrutiny, but it can unnecessarily create a sense of unease and pressure to appear productive and follow the rules. Staff might even change their behaviour to fit what they think is expected, even if it doesn’t align with their natural inclinations or creativity. This forces a workplace culture of control and conformity. Employees may feel hesitant to think outside the box because they are worried about being reprimanded or judged negatively. Ultimately, it stifles innovation and limits the potential for growth and improvement in the organization.
How will I know if they’re working if I can’t see them?
So back to the original question – how will I know if they’re working if I can’t see them? Truth: employees don’t need to be in the office to get work done. Good leaders know that leading with integrity is about setting expectations, getting commitment, and monitoring outcomes and results. Along the way, they need to check in on their people, remove roadblocks, and facilitate getting things done. And yes, there are many situations in which it IS a good idea for employees to be in the office. But those are to exchange ideas, to collaborate on results, and to build social connections. It is NOT so that a manager can check to see that they’re working.
Do you agree with me? I’d love to know what you think, whether you’re in a position of formal leadership, or an individual contributor. Under what other circumstances does it make sense for employees to be in the office? Please share your perspective by adding your comment below.