The Guardian’s Aditya Chakrabortty thinks we are. While we may have more power as consumers, he says, at work we are more regimented and controlled than ever before.
In shops, the layout is dictated by head office, while the produce arrives pre-sliced and pre-packaged. In the classroom, the teacher must work to the national curriculum. At the bank, branch and call-centre staff work to scripts and decisions about mortgages and loans are made centrally.
The forces that have increased our powers of consumption are often those that are reducing our sovereignty as workers. The power and cheapness of information technology makes it easier for managers to monitor their business’s performance and also to strip out the idiosyncratic bits of an operation.
And, quoting the work of Philip Brown, he concludes:
After years of research, Brown and his colleagues talk about a future workforce in which only 10-15% will have “permission to think”. The rest of us will merely carry out their decisions; what the academics call “digital Taylorism”, in which graduates will end up on the white-collar equivalent of a factory line. Think call centres rather than groovy offices and you’re most of the way there.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this, was it?
Business textbooks have been banging on about employee autonomy, empowerment and engagement for at least the past quarter century. Employees with more autonomy will feel more empowered, will therefore be more engaged and will thus be more productive. Furthermore, they won’t need as much supervision so your management costs will go down. OK, I’m simplifying for the sake of brevity, but most of the arguments for worker autonomy run along those lines.
Workers are happier, their productivity goes up and management costs go down. You’d think everybody would have jumped at it by now wouldn’t you?
A whole industry has grown up around employee empowerment and related areas like employee engagement. But, though a lot has been written about it, there is precious little research showing whether employees have more autonomy now than they did a couple of decades ago, or, indeed, whether they even feel more empowered.
Autonomy and empowerment are subjective. It may be that people feel less empowered precisely because their expectations of empowerment have been raised. Constantly being told that you live in a free and classless society, unencumbered by status and social hierarchy, may make you that bit more resentful when you find that your workplace still resembles a feudal barony.
Some of the jobs which used to be regimented, like those on factory production lines, have been automated. We don’t have the masses of industrial workers that we once had. At the same time, though, white-collar production lines, such as call centres and financial processing factories, have appeared. So, while society might feel less rigid than that the 1970s, there is little evidence that the levels of control in the workplace have changed. You and your boss might call each other by your first names but he is still very much your boss.
Observation of the extensive discussions about command and control vs worker autonomy have led me to come up with my own version of Godwin’s Law. Rick’s Law states: “As an online discussion on employee empowerment grows longer, the probability of someone mentioning SEMCO approaches 1.”
What strikes me about SEMCO, though, is that there seem to be more articles, radio programmes and case studies about it than companies that have actually emulated it. Everybody seems to agree that SEMCO’s form of industrial democracy is a wonderful inspiration but few seem to have followed its example.
Perhaps this is because command and control works, at least up to a point. It’s safe and everybody knows where they stand. Sometimes, employees push back against empowerment just as much as their managers do. Fear that they will be held responsible if things go wrong and a sense that ‘We’re not paid enough to make decisions like these’ contribute to the backlash. For a number of reasons, despite all the exhortations of management academics, employers have proved reluctant to dump the comfort blankets of hierarchy and control.
Are we becoming ever less autonomous at work as Aditya Chakrabortty says? It’s a difficult call. My sense is that we seem to have as many, though perhaps different, restrictions as we had a couple of decades ago. I think he is probably right when he says that autonomy and permission to think are the preserve of some 10-15%. I’m less convinced, though, that this figure is much different from what it would have been in the 1980s. Despite all that has been written over the last two decades about empowering workers, there isn’t a great deal of evidence that much has changed.