Work is not a place. Work is a trust equation.

It’s something some businesses are still struggling to understand and challenging themselves to implement.

Case in point, the UK’s Daily Telegraph, which recently installed sensors under employee desks to detect when they were present (therefore presumably, ‘working’).

The little black boxes were provided by a company called OccupEye, which claims to improve efficiencies in the workplace by optimising desk ‘utilisation’. The company says they were part of a sustainability program, and after some bad press, they’ve been removed (at least temporarily).

Let’s give OccupEye the benefit of the doubt that their technology is intended to create better use of existing spaces rather than insist on a singular style of usage.

The trouble is, employers with crippling cultural issues will be tempted to use this type of solution to effectively ‘microchip’ their workers, getting real time data that red flags a step away from the desk as a risk of some kind.

It also fails to grasp a simple truth. Work is not a place, and being present at a desk isn’t causally connected to high performance, indeed, performance at all (unless your customer success metric is hours spent sitting).

If people work best at a desk, that’s where they should be invited to work. If they perform better working at home, isn’t it in your interests to accomodate that flexibility? If they’re a morning person, why not let them start at 6am? If they’re useless before 10am, no amount of 8am meetings will change that.

Save it for the panopticon

Blanket surveillance has no role in a workplace. It’s running in the polar opposite direction that workplace cultures are trending worldwide.

Far from creating efficiencies, it introduces unnecessary costs; most acutely in the form of anxious, paranoid and unproductive employees whose focus is not on doing a great job, but on conforming to prescribed behaviours that rarely have a provable relationship to work outcomes.

The future of work is a contract of trust between employer and employee.

This doesn’t discount the role of guidance, expectations, risk management and clear goals – they’re all key. It’s about how the employee gets to those expected outcomes. The more they can control that process, the more likely you’ll get the best they have to offer.

A lack of trust produces passive-aggressiveness, defensiveness and hostility. It positions the employer as the enemy, generally producing one of two results – people that are terrified to come to work, or people that look for any way they can quietly buck or transgress the ‘oppressive’ system.

Communities aren’t made up of equals. They’re bound by ties of various strengths and different power dynamics. They’re no different to a workplace, which requires a foundation of trust for success, just as a community does.

How can you start the journey?

Universal flexibility isn’t possible for all (yet). Some occupations function within institutional models that demand physical presence and particular ways of working and being.

While we inch toward a more flexible working world, how can you start the journey in your own workplace? If you’re a leader, how can you signal trust with your team and give them greater control over their working environments and conditions.

Ditch the black box approach and talk to your people. I’m sure they’ve got some ideas.

Photo: Flickr: Joi Itonolifebeforecoffee


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