Modifying your behavior because you know you are being watched—in short, this is the Panopticon principle philosopher Jeremy Bentham introduced in 1791. One example application of the principle was in old prisons, where inmates were monitored and controlled by being visible. Prisons built on this principle have almost all been closed now. Nevertheless some 200 years later, the principle appears to be more relevant than ever, now that people can be monitored more or less anywhere and at any time.
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What can we learn from this theory in the current digital and measurable society?
Freedom and creativity go hand-in-hand
A growing number of organizations are embracing the “New Way of Working.” Employees in these organizations have more freedom of movement, which encourages creativity and productivity. You divide up the day how you want, and feel free to share ideas with people in the office who are not part of your own department. The time clock 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 workplaces are being occupied when. Sensors deliver plenty of usable, anonymous information. They help staff find an available workplace quickly and facility managers to achieve the ideal occupancy of the building.
When sensors are used to show the availability of workplaces anonymously, technology is positively contributing to an environment in which employees can freely focus on their work.
Modifying behavior in advance
When it is not workplaces, but people who are being monitored, technology is a tracking resource that actually acts against flexible working concepts. New technologies make it possible to track employees through their mobile phones and to collect data for employers to check on their employees and make adjustments based on this personal information.
What happens when people become aware of the fact that they are being monitored, or could be? It turns out that they feel the same about it as the prisoners in the Panopticon.
Recent research by the Max Planck Institute has shown that people will modify their behavior in advance of an anticipated negative outcome. This is also known as the “chilling effect.” If people know they are being monitored, they will increasingly do what is “desirable” rather than what is best for them. For example, an employee will be less likely to spontaneously start a chat with a colleague, afraid that their boss will see this and think they are not working. Other research into privacy perceptions has also shown that people turn away from an organization if they believe they are being watched.
So, the possibilities offered by new technologies bring with them an awkward balance: monitoring people does provide an insight into workplace use, but it also includes the risk that employees will act differently and will leave the organization.
In deploying new technologies, autonomy appears to be the keyword; after all, you don’t want the “chilling effect” to cool off the relationship between employer and employee.