MORE THAN half of all UK employees - 52 per cent - are now subject to computer surveillance at work, according to research from the Economic and Social Research Council's 'Future of Work' programme. That's a remarkable figure, and it has led to a sharp increase in strain among those being monitored - particularly white-collar administrative staff.
'This is a complete surprise - it came from nowhere. It's a revolution in our work practices,' says the LSE's Pat McGovern, one of the researchers.
So what's going on? The rhetoric around office technology emphasises its supposed liberation and empowerment: computers remove routine and leave people free to be creative, and remote working delivers individuals from 'presenteeism' and allows them to be productive in their own way. But, as another researcher says: 'Now for the first time we can see how this development is damaging employees' wellbeing.'
It seems to be part of a complex shift in employment relations. Instead of cutting full-time jobs and using the market to reduce costs, British employers have been devising new ways of keeping their employees, but getting more out of them. Many of the techniques they use - teamwork, performance management and pay, individual development - form part of the bundle of human-resource management (HRM) practices many believe contribute to the much touted 'high-performance workplace'. Yet the effect seems to be negated when computers rather than people do the managing.
Job satisfaction is falling, too. The damage is especially evident down the office pecking order. The research finds a strong class bias in job outcomes under the new regime, because the combination of IT advances and individualised HRM policies has greatly increased both the number of low-level computer-mediated jobs and the visibility of workers' performance. 'Everything is logged, so people become much more accountable,' notes Warwick Business School's Professor Harry Scarbrough, who studies the evolution of the knowledge economy.
The result is a tightening of the performance screw, with an extra ratchet or two for those at the bottom of the ladder who are no longer covered by trade union representation. While managers and professionals are well placed to strike individual pay bargains, the lower-paid -especially women - tend to be left out in the cold. The divergence is exacerbated by the computer-generated tendency to centralise information and intensify hierarchy: managers see the performance figures, lowly employees don't. The consequence, finds the research, is increasing earnings inequality. Substantial pay rises for most managers contrasts with static or even declining wages for low-end computer-monitored workers, who are working harder, and longer hours, into the bargain.
Hence the strain. In effect, today's employment anxieties are not about being out of work: they're about the job itself being more demanding, and the rewards more unequal. The unease is not too surprising. One of the casualties of surveillance is trust: this is true even when people don't know if they are being watched or not. In addition, while technology achieves marvels in compressing time and space, it doesn't do intimacy it's hard to build trust by remote.
And perhaps, speculates Scarbrough, that's the point. Is surveillance by computer the virtual equivalent of Jeremy Bentham's 'panopticon' (a prison whose inmates could all be watched from a central point without their knowing), by means of which employers can keep the advantages of employment continu ity and tight job control without the cost of trust-building measures such as pensions and career structures?
McGovern is not so sure. He believes many of the HR practices are genuine. However, in a more general way the dehumanising consequences of embedding ever more management routines in IT systems are too obvious to miss. 'Human resources management' by computer is a travesty, a contradiction in terms. Computers are terrible at making fine judgments: see the spectacular junior-doctors fiasco last year. But even substituting computers for routine matters such as scheduling work rotas and holidays can lead to feelings of disengagement and even coercion: the essence of machine bureaucracy.
The effects on managers are potentially just as pernicious. One obvious danger is that managers manage what's measured for them, rather than decide themselves what to focus on. That stands for a broader peril. Reliance on computers is an invitation to managers to switch off their brains. It is also an abnegation of their real responsibility: the duty of care to those they manage. Managing by machine may be easier, but the prospect it raises - of a generation of managers being denied the opportunity (and obligation) to use common sense, experience and method as the primary tools of their trade - is an unsettling one.
The Observer, 13 January 2008