The period of the Olympics in London has probably been the largest flexible working experiment a city has ever undergone. That despite Boris Johnson claiming working at home to be a “skiver’s paradise”. Fortunately we were spared that message being broadcast on the tube.
The principal issue for “white collar” workers is whether people are trusted to work – and are able to work – in a variety of locations, including home, rather than simply in the office. That is, whether they need to be seen by their managers in order to be productive, in the time-honoured (and still readily accepted) Taylorist tradition.
Firstly I need to ask the workplace community to disregard the term “presenteeism”, that seems to have been assigned, without reference, to the practice. It actually means attending the workplace while unwell, and is regarded to be a serious issue in its own right (expect to see it more widely discussed as Winter approaches).
Given its empiricist Taylorist roots, I would argue that the issue is more about being seen than being present – as one can be present without being seen. It should probably therefore be called Management by Observation – as distinct from Management by Objective, given to us by Drucker as long ago as 1959 (The Practice of Management) albeit often claimed to be something far fresher.
The need to be observed led me to the idea of the all-seeing eye, commonly termed the Eye of Providence, considering that there may be something deeper in our unconscious about the importance of observation. The start of its journey into ubiquity was as the Eye of Horus, the ancient Egyptian sky god who was usually depicted as a falcon and whose right eye was associated with the sun, Ra. The symbol is one you will probably recognise. The Eye makes its most famous appearance on the reverse side of Great Seal of the United States, which appears on the one-dollar bill (it’s even watching what you spend). It appears in Buddhism – where Buddha is regularly referred to as the “Eye of the World” – and since 1797 has reminded Freemasons that their thoughts and deeds are always observed by God.
Perhaps the notion that the Eye is both protector and conscience may be too deeply ingrained for us to easily shift the balance to being trusted without being observed in the workplace? Has its ubiquity elevated sight to be the most innately powerful, fundamental of our senses?
We may have our symbol for Management by Observation – and, equally, our symbol for the opposite argument, that we are able to effectively decide when, where and how to work to deliver our objectives.
Maybe however the Eye itself could actually be used in support of flexible working . We can assure skeptical managers that even when they can’t see their flock, they are being watched by Horus.
So it’s okay.