Future of Work Wednesday: "Big Brother" & the Hybrid Workplace

Britta Schellenberg
Britta Schellenberg
Published on 
7.13.2022

Future of Work Wednesday

In surveillance states, those in power use technology-enabled surveillance to perpetuate their power, not to serve the needs of people. When George Orwell wrote his classic, dystopian novel 1984, he could barely have imagined the sophisticated surveillance tools we have today.

Tweet from BBC Worklife

When combined with surveillance technologies, “Big Brother” mindsets have the potential to create toxic workplaces where top-down control and compliance takes precedence over trusting people and offering them the flexibility to decide where and how they work best.

As we’ve seen in the news recently, especially with employers like Tesla and JP Morgan Chase, employee surveillance can, and actually is, being used to force people to choose between company in-office mandates (such as Tesla’s 40-hour in-office mandate) and serious consequences like reprimands, loss of career opportunities, and even potential job losses.

Some people consider extensive employee surveillance as a potential violation of their privacy and sense of personal autonomy. Not to mention super-creepy and indicative of an authoritarian mindset.

Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk and JP Morgan CEO Jamie Diamond have long been outspoken critics against flexible work and enthusiastic users of employee surveillance. Let's see how that impacts employee experience.

Learning vs. Controlling 

I’ve never believed that technology is intrinsically good or bad. What matters most is how tech and data are being deployed and what goals they serve. Tactics and goals are human choices that technology simply serves. When it comes to hybrid work, I’ve been noticing an important difference in how tech and data are being deployed by organizations to drive hybrid transformation. 

Learning and adapting. Some employers are collecting and using workplace data in order to identify gaps in their hybrid work model and then close those gaps. If they find that their people are coming into the office at less than expected or desired rates, they can analyze quantitative and qualitative data to better understand the why. These organizations can then use data-informed analysis to brainstorm changes that might increase office utilization rates. 

Perhaps the office space itself needs to be reconfigured to support team needs. Maybe better workplace technology like cameras and microphones need to be installed to support hybrid meetings, or more in-office programming would attract more people. These “learning” organizations are using tech and data to support their own improvement and problem-solving capabilities.

Mandating and controlling. Other employers have taken a different approach: issuing rigid mandates and then using employee surveillance to enforce compliance.

Tesla, for example, monitors employee badge swipes as a way to enforce the “40 hours minimum in-the-office” mandate issued in late May. If an employee’s badge swipes don’t align with the company’s rigid RTO approach, then an automated email gets triggered warning the employee that they’re NOT in compliance with company policy. That can lead to serious consequences for the non-compliant employee, and certainly creates tremendous stress and anxiety.

The headline of a recent Markets Insider article tells you everything you need to know about employee surveillance’s negative impact on employee experience: 

JPMorgan Chase started tracking what we do during the work day. We're stressed, exhausted, and scared to talk about what's going on.

Can Employees Learn to “Love Big Brother”?

Organizations that use Orwell’s “Big Brother” as a role model don’t necessarily create negative employee experiences. Remember that employee experience is about both expectations and the actual experience.

A good employee experience means expectations are met. So if a company is well-known as a “surveillance employer” and is transparent with job candidates about its views on surveillance, then job candidates have knowledge and a choice about whether to apply and work there. If someone applies to Tesla or JP Morgan, they should know what they’re getting into. They can’t later pretend to be “shocked” when they experience employee surveillance.

The problem comes when employers are not transparent about employee surveillance, because then team members have every right to object. There’s a concept in medicine called “informed consent,” meaning that a doctor needs to make all the relevant risks clear to a patient before the patient can consent to medical treatment. It’s the same with employee experience and employee surveillance, in my view.

Impacts on Employee Experience

In the novel “1984,” Orwell created the idea of “groupthink.” The group would be forced to forget the previous announcement that contradicted the new announcement because Big Brother was infallible.

While the groupthink concept worked well in Orwell’s dystopian fiction, it will not work within today’s workplace. CEOs and leadership teams that continually contradict themselves tend to lose trust/credibility over time and may even get replaced. 

Organizations that learn from real time data, especially data coming from their teams, tend to improve over time. Controlling and punishing people might work well in the short-term, but it eventually erodes trust and promotes disengagement and churn.

Learning from your teams has the opposite effect in the long-term and the mid-term, though (yes) learning can be messy in the short-term. People in “learning organizations” feed into a virtuous cycle of more sharing leading to more improvement, as well as more trust and deeper engagement.  

The main takeaway here?

You need to build hybrid work upon a firm foundation of employee experience and data-informed cycles of learning. So often, organizational mindsets and culture are the most powerful drivers of business outcomes – and that’s certainly the case with hybrid work. 

So what’s your organization’s mindset around hybrid work?