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Knowledge Workers Are Now Panopticon Prisoners

Jul 31, 2023

Frederick Winslow Taylor was the most influential management thinker of the 20th century. His The Principles of Scientific Management (1911) quickly put management on a new foundation: replace rule-of-thumb work methods with rules based on the objective study of work; divide work into discrete tasks; provide “detailed instruction and supervision of each worker in the performance of that worker’s discrete task”; measure the worker according to his ability to comply with this ideal; make liberal use of punishments and rewards.

The bosses could not get enough of Taylor’s ideas. Henry Ford implemented them in his car plants. Both Harvard and Wharton offered Taylor professorships despite his status as a Harvard drop-out. After first denouncing Taylorism in 1913 for “sucking out every drop of the wage slave’s nervous and physical energy,” Lenin wrote a front-page article in Pravda in 1918 urging Russia to import the new system. Intellectuals and artists might complain that Taylor’s system was dehumanizing — see Aldous Huxley in Brave New World (1932), Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) and George Orwell in 1984 (1949) — but Taylor conquered the world.

Taylor is now set to be the most influential management thinker of the 21st century as well. The new world of information technology — from interconnected computers to omnipresent cameras to the internet of things — is giving managers unprecedented ability to keep a watchful eye on the workforce.

The speed of the advance of the new Taylorism is striking. A 2022 New York Times article reported that eight of the largest 10 private US employers track the productivity metrics of their workers. A Wall Street Journal article in the same year reported that 67% of North American companies with at least 500 workers deploy employee monitoring software. A March 2023 survey of 1,000 business leaders for, a career site, found that “just about every company” uses some form of monitoring. Most of these companies had either fired staff or had them leave voluntarily on the basis of what the monitoring revealed.

In the 20th century Taylor’s scientific management techniques were directed at the working class — the most memorable scenes of his Principles involved workers in a pig iron factory, many of them of East European origin, who were cajoled into carrying more pig iron per shift. New technology is intensifying the monitoring of regular workers. Hospitals oblige nurses to wear RFID badges so that they can track where they are and whether they wash their hands frequently enough. Trucking companies festoon the cabs of trucks with cameras and sensors that follow the driver’s eye movements for signs of inattention and tiredness. United Parcel Service Inc. retrofitted its delivery trucks with multiple sensors to tabulate how much break time drivers are taking. Oliver Anthony’s much discussed hit song is perhaps a protest as much against surveillance as wokery:

“These rich men north of Richmond

Lord knows they all just wanna have total control

Wanna know what you think, wanna know that you do

And they don’t think you know, but I know that you do”

Today, companies are extending surveillance to knowledge workers who have prided themselves on their ability to control their own work lives (degrees are supposed to buy a measure of freedom as well as a higher salary). The tools that we all employ to do our jobs — from office computers to home laptops and from tablets to smartphones — are being turned into surveillance mechanisms. Use a company-provided machine or email and the likelihood is that you are being monitored from the moment that you log on in the morning to the moment that you log off at night. Slack off and somebody will notice. Complain and alarm bells will go off. We are all pig iron carriers now.

The work from home (WFH) revolution that was kicked off by Covid helped to boost the surveillance of knowledge workers. It turns out that the victory that workers won over their bosses was only a half-victory: In return for working from home, bosses increasingly treated the home as an extension of the office. But the deeper cause is a technological revolution that is radically reducing the cost of surveillance while simultaneously improving the quality: A revolution that is not only producing specialized new companies such as ActivTrak and Teramind but is also turning the devices and apps that have become necessary for modern life into monitoring devices. That home office in your castle? It’s now a panopticon.

The most basic form of surveillance focuses on what you do (“activity monitoring”). How many keystrokes do you make an hour? What websites do you visit? How often do you take a break? What are you posting on social media? Many employers take a photograph of your computer screen every ten minutes or so to see what is on it. Employers can also monitor your team spirit (“network monitoring”). How good are you at collaborating? Who do you interact with by email or group chats? How many meetings do you attend? How active are you in professional networks? They can even monitor your moods. The most sophisticated companies use video analytics to measure your level of enthusiasm or compatibility with other team members. They can also listen to your tone of voice to gauge your team spirit and scan your email to find signs of disgruntlement. Teramind (slogan: “behavioral analytics, data insights and enforcement”) can scan for signs of disgruntled employees by flagging profanity in emails as well as visits to job search sites. We cannot be that far from the future of “radical transparency” described in David Eggers’ novel, The Circle, in which companies monitor the social media postings of their employees to see if they are sufficiently committed to their employers.

All this information can then be put together and used to determine your rewards, much as Taylor used his stopwatch to determine the pay of pig iron carriers. Prodoscore is a software that uses a proprietary algorithm to assign workers a daily productivity score out of 100. The software considers various inputs such as keys struck, emails sent, phone calls made, messages on company messaging apps and activities on databases. The workers are ranked against each other, and scores and rankings are sent to managers. The result according to the logic of Taylorism: a perfectly scientific and objective way of determining rewards.

What are we to make of this surveillance revolution? Employers have one powerful argument on their side — that they have a duty (and often a legal obligation) to make sure that sensitive or proprietary information that they have been entrusted with by their customers does not fall into the wrong hands. This is particularly true of companies in the financial and IT sectors, not least my employer Bloomberg LP, but is also true of companies that deal with healthcare or critical infrastructure.

No sooner did this work escape from the office to the home than employers had no choice but to follow it and put guard rails around it. They also have smaller arguments. They have a duty to their shareholders to make sure that workers are not engaging in fraud or goofing off. In the past you could do this by walking around the office (“management by walking around”). Now that so much work is virtual you have to use whatever tools are available.

But many employers are taking such legitimate worries and using them to construct an all-enveloping surveillance regime, sometimes deliberately, sometimes, as with so much surveillance, because one thing just leads to another. Employers may be right to worry about skiving. But should they treat everybody as a potential skiver? They are certainly right to worry about the loss of proprietary information and trade secrets. But should they apply specialized techniques that are used to spot “enemies within” to the entire workforce? And should they be doing much of this under cover of the night without informing workers when they are being monitored?

The most basic problem with spyware is that it routinely collects the wrong information — grabbing private information (for example screenshots of bank accounts) while having no way of collecting relevant data on creativity or even cogitation. Type nonsense and you are recorded as working hard. Take time to think great thoughts and you are seen as idling. Most bosses of knowledge-intensive firms recognize the importance of creativity — one of the most common arguments against working from home is that it reduces the likelihood of those spontaneous meetings that produce intellectual breakthroughs. Yet here they are installing spyware that discourages workers from taking time away from their desks.

The second problem is that it encourages alienation, a mood reflected in the nicknames of the new surveillance systems, “bossware” or “spyware.” Knowledge workers usually pride themselves on their ability to manage themselves. That is how they accumulated all their degrees. Many of them also enjoy their work for its own sake and not just as a means of earning a living. But the new iteration of scientific management means that their supervisor is peering over their shoulder every second of the day and standing ready to second-guess their judgements.

The main reason for installing spyware is because employers don’t trust their workers to do the right thing, particularly if they are working from home a couple of days a week. The names of many spyware companies reflect the dark mood in the C-suite: for example, SentryPC and InterGuard (which “offers endpoint lockdown and data retrieval features if you need to secure your data when a remote associate is terminated”). Workers naturally respond to this lack of trust by dragging their feet or even putting spanners in the works. One study revealed that “monitored employees” are “substantially more likely to take unapproved breaks, disregard instructions, damage workplace property, steal office equipment and purposefully work at a slow pace, among other rule-breaking behaviors.” It is notable that some of the most closely watched employees in the US, truckers and warehouse workers, are also the most restive.

Workers are inventing ingenious ways of cheating time trackers. They can install a “mouse jiggler” that creates the illusion of activity. (One popular model is called “Liberty.”) They can predict the time when employers take screenshots (typically every ten minutes) and make sure they have work on the screen for the photo). Workers who use multiple monitors can display their work on the screen being monitored and use the other for doing their shopping, playing games or watching videos. This is the modern equivalent of leaving your jacket on the back of the chair if you decide to spend long periods away from the office.

Some of the chief enablers of the new system are already getting cold feet. The CEO of Microsoft Corp., Satya Nadella, talks about “productivity paranoia.” Laszlo Bock, who helped found the concept of “people analytics” during his time at Google LLC, now a subsidiary of Alphabet Inc., argues that “you don’t have to hook every employee up to an MRI to find out how to make them work better.” But the evidence of the 20th century suggests that Taylorism is hard for managers to resist.

A succession of management gurus demonstrated the flaws in Taylor’s arguments. Mary Parker Follett, a rare female guru in the first half of the 20th century, argued that incentives were only one of a collection of tools available to managers and that they should not be relied on to the exclusion of others such as self-motivation. Elton Mayo, a psychologist at Harvard Business School, emphasized the importance of non-economic rewards. “So long as commerce specializes in business methods which take no account of human nature and social motives, so long may we expect strikes and sabotage to be the ordinary accompaniment of industry.” Douglas McGregor weighed into the debate in The Human Side of the Enterprise (1960), arguing that management theory paid too much attention to “theory X,” which holds that workers are lazy and need to be driven by financial incentives, and too little to “theory Y” which holds that, on the contrary, workers are creative and need to be given responsibility.

The humanist school enjoyed occasional moments of success — not least when the ailing US car industry turned, in desperation, to the Japanese idea that workers should be put into self-organizing teams that were trusted with producing improvements in workflow as well as setting their own pace of work. But Taylorism always found a way of reasserting itself. Inc., which now employs almost a million workers, owes far more to Taylor’s stopwatch management than to Japanese thinking about quality circles and continuous improvement (“kaizen”).

I suspect that the same will be true of knowledge work. Taylorism appeals to the basic prejudices of managers — that workers, like donkeys, will shirk unless they are goaded into activity, and that there is “one best way” of managing people that can be discovered by science, enforced by measurement and empowered by ever more powerful technology.

The Taylorists will also be able to discover plenty of productivity improvements in the short term. There are all sorts of efficiencies to be gained from knowledge work through the lens of scale and scope. Giant knowledge companies can deploy global resources on problems that have hitherto been treated as local. The hive mind can process information that has hitherto been controlled by guilds or divided by silos. These productivity improvements will almost certainly fade in the longer term as resentment mounts and creativity withers. Reduce people to cogs in a machine and they will lose their creative spark. But by then it may be too late.

The great pity about what is currently unfolding is that it can be avoided. We already know how to manage knowledge workers successfully. Give them broad objectives. Equip them with the tools that they need. Allow them to organize their work themselves rather than subjecting them to (often out-of-touch) managers. And measure them by their overall output rather than by how many keys they strike or emails they send. This does not mean letting them off the leash entirely — proprietary information needs to be guarded — but it does mean, as a general principle, erring on the side of empowerment rather than micromanagement and trust rather than paranoia. One century of worshiping Frederick Winslow Taylor is quite enough.

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

• Actually, Zoom’s In-Office Policy Shows the Power of Hybrid Work: Sarah Green Carmichael

• Frankenstein Chemicals Are in Your Drinking Water: F.D. Flam

• Corporate Jets Have No Place at the Beach: Brooke Sutherland

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Adrian Wooldridge is the global business columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. A former writer at the Economist, he is author, most recently, of “The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World.”

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