The Panopticon of Remote Work
At the end of July my child, Connor, gifted me tickets to see Alanis Morisette at the Saddledome. This was the first time I had attended a concert since before the pandemic. During and after the concert that evening, spending time with Connor, I shared that I felt different for the first time in a long time. I hadn't realized that I had been feeling less than my best for a while.
Anyone who knows me will tell you that I don't admit to these types of things, so to do so must have caused me to pause and reflect. A few weeks later I was sitting chatting with my wife Lesley, and decided to share my meanderings with her. I shared that I hadn't realized how isolated I had become over the last year and that my normal disposition had become much more quiet realizing that I need to do something about it. I began researching because that is how it works for me. My research gave me two themes to work on: burnout and isolation. I've captured some of the research below, with a few suggestions for individuals and companies to consider.
A recent survey in 2021 by Psychiatry.org asked "How often do you work from home?" 51% of respondents said they worked at least a few days a week if not all the time, and, of the 51% of respondents, 67% said that they have trouble leaving their home office desk. I can't help but wonder if this sense that you can't leave work is because in the "old normal" you would typically arrive within 15 minutes of the majority of your colleagues and also typically leave within an acceptable time range. In the "new normal" you do not have that sense of communal regulation that allows you to establish a measure of performance through regular timekeeping. Factor in that interaction with supervisors, team leads and managers that most people were accustomed to, has all but disappeared, and you are left with a lingering question, "Have I done enough?"
Another 2019 survey found that 52% of workers reported that they worked longer hours than in the office, and felt as though they needed to contribute more than their colleagues. It could be argued this is not a consequence of the pandemic, perhaps it is more a case of the supposed 'freedom' that technology has granted.
So why would the title of this blog be named "The Panopticon of Remote Work"? While researching this blog, I read quite a few articles that inferred that the communal workspace is a panopticon, I disagree I think that remote working creates a panopticon more forcefully than a communal workspace, although it could be countered that arriving and leaving work uses peer pressure, this isn't exactly the ideal definition of a panopticon.
The origins of the term panopticon derive from an 18th-century circular prison constructed where all the cells faced inwards towards a guard tower. The tower was constructed in the centre of the circle so that the prisoners could not see the guard, but the guard could see into the cells. In 1975 Michel Foucault put forward in his book Discipline and Punishment that the concept of the panopticon can create power and knowledge, therefore can be used as a social control to generate desired outcomes.
Today we have a level of technology that strengthens Focault's view of the panopticon, in that corporate servers to which our work stations are connected can collect detailed work patterns and productivity, like an inmate in a prison cell monitoring every second of their activity and generating reports, potentially being used to determine their performance appraisals, incentives, designations and job bands. The degree to which it is enforced (read: punishment) can lead to a hidden fear in the mind of the employees thereby impacting their productivity and mental state. and potentially resulting in burnout.
Something else to be considered when reviewing the mental health impacts of remote working, is the feeling of isolation especially when fewer “extracurricular” post-work options are made available either through spontaneous or planned events. Our daily interactions are shown to reinforce our sense of well-being and belonging in a community; and within large cities and towns millions were being forced to not only work from home, but stay at home, as bars, restaurants, and events were closed. Although this is changing, many people still feel trapped in a paradigm that keeps them from moving back to the "old normal". Even in “normal” times, the impact of loneliness and isolation should not be understated; I mentioned in a previous blog that research has shown it can be twice as harmful to physical and mental health as obesity. The study found that 19% of remote workers, reported feelings of loneliness. This sense of enforced isolation in your home office for anything unto 12 hours a day can start to feel like a gilded prison though a prison all the same.
What to do about it
A top priority, especially for those who are energized by it, is the need to maintain relationships with co-workers and managers. This is critical not only to work performance but to emotional and mental wellness. Companies should try to recreate that communal after-work experience or connectivity, either through virtual gatherings that are not productivity-focused, but more an opportunity to share what is happening in the teams' lives. If friendships have tailed off due to the enforced isolation then maybe it's time to reach out and rekindle these relationships.
Companies and leaders: have you checked in on the capacity of your teams and individuals to deliver the work needed? I chatted with a VP of one of our clients and we agreed that one of the failings of this "new normal" is that the ability to have a quick conversation and check in with a team member has become difficult; a casualty of this is that the sense of how much work someone is taking on can be missed. It is only when the engine breaks that we notice it was overloaded.
Create a comfortable and private place in your home to work, if possible and incorporating exercise breaks and social interaction into your routine (you have to leave your house). While technology can be detrimental to your physical and mental health, there are many tools available to help you break from work and find the time for social interaction, this may not be a popular recommendation, but stay away from the apps that steal your time.
If you are accountable for a team ask yourself this question for each member of my team do I interact with them the same amount as before the pandemics?
Finally, simple steps like turning off email notifications before and after working hours and maintaining a normal sleep schedule will help maintain a feeling of normalcy.
Curious about how to implement more "remote-worker friendly" practices into your operation? Want to discuss your own personal strategy for removing the barriers of isolation or recover from burnout? Reach out, a call doesn't cost a thing!