The illusion of individual vs. institutional control

The Physical Space

Many of today’s physical office spaces are designed with a panopticon-like layout. In most spaces, seniority dictates who sits on the outer edges of the office, with junior people closer to the center. This classic Japanese style and most workspaces follow some variation. Managers occupy offices around the outer edges of the workspace, just as foremen occupy desks high above the shop floor. Thus, workers in the center can never be certain if or when they’re being monitored.

Spontaneous opening of some bottles of bubbly in meeting room 3

Same goes for conference rooms, which are technically shared spaces. Most companies will nickname a conference room “the fishbowl” because of transparent walls and prominent focal location. Physical layouts are often described with adjectives like “collaborative,” “open,” and “flat, just like our org chart.” What they’re really designed for is institutional control.

Let’s go back to The Story of Grand Central and the Taming of the Crowd:

“This design…preserves the Crowd in a central area, providing raised balconies from which there are plenty of opportunities to people-watch. Being placed on display is not lost on the subconscious of the Crowd: what appears to be hustle and bustle are manifestations of many synchronizations happening at once…These items add perspective to the Crowd and diminish its psychological power as an uncontrollable mass.”

How often do you hear an executive throw out the “people are our greatest asset” cliche? Humans run every business out there and the larger the company, the larger the crowd that needs to be controlled.

The Virtual Space

But we’re in the social business era now and corporate office environments are evolving. We have coworking spaces, hotelling, and telecommuting. Emerging software enables online collaboration and enterprise evangelists encourage everyone to “work out loud.” That is – increase operational efficiency by using tools that facilitate collaborative publishing and editing, getting valuable content out of woefully siloed email inboxes, “where knowledge goes to die” as they say.

Empty inbox

Most companies consider the Crowd to be external to their payroll. The unruly masses are the billions of social media users who seek customer support, get excited when a brand tweets back, and have the power to make campaigns go viral for better or worse. The external Crowd is impossible to control and many companies thus restrict their employees from participating in social media, even when wholly contained inside the firewall.

By doing this, companies lose opportunities to not only drive productivity gains but also manage more effectively by exterting greater control. Not all employees relish the chance to work out loud – they’re the ones who are wary of being monitored. Other write this hesitation off as paranoid – working out loud is liberating! Exciting! Collaborative! 

Managers would be wise to tap into this zeitgeist and build a business case to support blissful ignorance. By putting an internal Crowd control design in place via process and technology platforms, the organization would better prepared to mobilize towards common outcomes rather than allowing behavior to evolve unchecked.

ACL 2010: Day 1

Put another way, which is preferable: having employees burning hours by skulking off to coffee shops to vent with colleagues, or having data and analytics available to provide quantitative employee insights or safe, well-lit places out of the public eye for employees to vent qualitative concerns – before they hit Glassdoor or other word-of-mouth sites?

It’s a manager’s job to control the crowd. Bad managers attempt this using brute force. Good managers understand how individual vs. institutional roles should be orchestrated to best effect.

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  1. One of the best comments I heard along these lines from a Council member (Andy Caruson @acaruson at Lowe’s) was, “Social doesn’t create a culture; it exposes a culture.” If your employees are skulking off to grouse in lit or dark places, you have a labor/management problem that pre-dates new ways of working socially. Could probably extend the same thinking to brand relationships.

    The best examples of effective socially transparent workplaces have an open, risk-free, leadership-led free exchange of opinions and ideas that is impervious to level and status. Happy to see you writing about this in any event.

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Being: Peter Kim