Employees must feel free to innovate

People change their behaviour because they know they are being watched. This is the Panopticum principle philosopher Jeremy Bentham introduced in 1791. This principle has been applied in old prisons, where inmates knew they were monitored and controlled. Prisons built on this principle have almost all been closed now. Nevertheless here we are two hundred years later and this principle appears to be more relevant than ever. Nowadays people can be monitored more or less anywhere and at any time.

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So what can we learn from this theory in the current digital and measurable society?

Freedom and creativity go hand-in-hand

An increasing number of organisations are embracing The New Way of Working. Employees in these organisations have more freedom of movement, which encourages creativity and productivity. It is only when you feel free that you can really be  creative. You plan your day the way you want to, and you feel free in the office to share ideas with people who are not part of your own department. Time becomes superfluous and is replaced by working independently of time or location. This is facilitated by IT solutions, social media and smart, flexible workplaces.

By installing sensors in offices, it becomes possible to check easily which workplace is being occupied at which time. Sensors deliver plenty of usable, anonymous information. They help staff in finding an available workplace quickly, and help facility managers achieving the ideal occupancy of the building.

When sensors are used to show the availability of workplaces anonymously, technology is then contributing to an environment in which employees can focus freely on their work. However other technologies make it possible to track employees such as mobile phones which enable collecting data. This is how employers can keep an eye on their employees and can make adjustments based on behavioural  information.

Modifying behaviour in advance

When it is not workplaces, but people who are being monitored, technology is a tracking resource which actually acts against The New Way of Working. What happens when people become aware of the fact that they are being monitored? It turns out that they feel the same as the prisoners in the Panopticum.

Recent research by the Max Planck Institute has shown that people will deliberately modify their behaviour in  anticipation of a negative outcome. This is also known as the ‘chilling effect’. If people know they are being monitored, they will show an increase  in socially-desirable behaviour. For example, they will be less liable to start a chat spontaneously with a colleague, being afraid that their boss will see this and think that they are not working. Another American research on the perceptions of privacy has also shown that people turn away from an organisation if they believe they are being watched.

The possibilities offered by the new technologies also bring with them an awkward balance: monitoring people does provide an insight into workplace usage, but it also entails a risk that employees will actually adopt undesirable behaviour and will turn away from the organisation.

When deploying new technologies, autonomy appears to be the keyword. After all, you don’t want the ‘chilling effect’ to cool-off the relationships between employers and employees.

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