How managers came to rule the workplace

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The gap between managers and the managed has widened. Photograph: Murdo Macleod for the Guardian

A few years ago, Yahoo chief executive Marissa Mayer hit the headlines concerning a confidential memo she’d sent to employees. The message seemed to go against everything we know about how a high-tech, post-industrial economy operates. From now on, everyone must be present and accounted for at the office. Working from home is prohibited.

The memo was carefully worded in the language of collegiality and staff development. But employees understood its real meaning: if we can’t see you, we don’t trust you.

It wasn’t surprising that Yahoo staff were annoyed. We’ve known for years that employees are much more productive if they’re able to harness the freedoms that mobile technology can afford. Being chained to an office can be counter-productive in many occupations.

Many business commentators believed that Yahoo was an exception in this regard, swimming against the tide of management wisdom in this rich information age.

Then other stories started to emerge that seemed to indicate a sea change. Investigative reporters at the New York Times in 2015 revealed the shocking techniques used by Amazon to manage its office workers. You thought its warehouse workers were harassed. Wait until you join HQ. Absolutely everything is monitored, even the time it takes to answer an email. Fear and intimidation soon became rife in the office, transforming “the annual performance review into a daily event”, as one stressed employee lamented.

Worse was still to come. Employees at the Telegraph recently discovered heat and motion sensors that tracked whether they were at their desks. There was no warning. Employees simply found the devices on Monday morning. They eventually had to Google the brand name to identify what they were. A memo was issued at lunchtime by senior management stating that the new policy was “to make sure we are making best use of our space in the building”.

None of this sits very well with the official knowledge-society narrative. Old-school hierarchies are meant to be dead and buried. Authoritarian micro-managers have no place in industries that need workers to use their initiative, share ideas, be creative and excel at self-management. Flat company structures and autonomy are the future. Back in the 1990s, business guru Tom Peters even heralded the end of management.

So what happened? Why does it feel like there are more bosses now than ever telling us what to do, often adopting a needlessly authoritarian tone?

To answer the question we need to remember where the idea of management comes from. Sure, managers help co-ordinate things – big organisations need administrators. But the modern manager was actually invented in the early US steel industry and with a specific rationale. One of the first management consultants, Fredrick Winslow Taylor, deplored how much control average employees had over their jobs. He didn’t trust them, and if there was a dispute they’d always have the upper hand. So something had to change.

Taylor recommended that all knowledge about a job be transferred to a new breed of managers who watch staff like hawks, often with a stopwatch in their hand. He drove the point home enthusiastically, to the extent that workers began to complain that it was hindering their work, not helping them. Yes, management was actually getting in the way.

That was more than 100 years ago when employers were perhaps less enlightened. So what about now? Why are we seeing the same heavy-handedness reappear in many post-industrial occupations, including journalism, the IT sector, retail, universities and so-forth? There are a number of forces in action.

First, we’re often told that workers are happier if hired on a flexible basis, be it as contractors or self-employed. This may suit some but research shows [pdf] that poorer pay and conditions often increase discontent and disengagement.

Employees feel hard done by and fight back. As result, and rather ironically, we see the spread of bosses precisely in those industries we would expect to see fewer. They’re hired to keep a lid on the seething dissatisfaction caused by zero-hours and Uber-ised jobs.

The second driver is inequality. The greater the division between those at the top and the bottom of any hierarchy, then the more monitoring and supervision we’ll see. That’s because rising perceptions of injustice make conflict and non-compliance more likely.

At the societal level, for example, it’s no coincidence that the increasing wealth gap has seen more prisons, nosey technocrats, surveillance and policing. The same principle applies to work organisations. Just look at the figures. In 1998 the average FTSE CEO pay was 47 times greater than the average worker. In 2013 the ratio was 174:1. In the US, CEOs’ real pay increased by 937% between 1978 and 2014. Workers only got 10.9% over the same period. Under these conditions, organisations tend to become increasingly punitive, even if such measures interfere with people doing their jobs effectively.

The third reason for all these managers is the huge importance placed today on metrics. Shareholders demand them. Senior bureaucrats swear by them. Who’s pulling their weight and who isn’t? The only problem is that marginal product – what you add to an organisation’s profit margin as an individual – is notoriously difficult to measure. Productivity usually comes from a collective effort. And how on earth do you quantify the more emotional and social dimension of many jobs today?

In the face of such uncertainty, employers either go over the top with every big data tool imaginable, such as Amazon, or simply give up and resort to face-to-face supervision, like Yahoo.

Finally, research has discovered a sort of sociological law when it comes to hierarchies and bosses. They can easily take on a life of their own and automatically proliferate. Companies end up needing more supervisors to check on the supervisors. This is how organisations become inundated with administrators, and sooner or later all these managers need to justify their existence, normally by creating extra work somewhere else in the organisation.

The problem is not really with managers per se: they’re usually under the lash as much as anyone else. It’s the steep and disempowering hierarchies that have mushroomed all over society in the last 15 years, especially in the employment sector. That gap between a remote, technocratic elite at the top and everyone else has never seemed so vast. This fosters distrust. Dissent. And inevitably control.

Advocates of the knowledge society once promised we could have our cake (an extreme form of capitalism) and eat it too (personal freedom). It turned out to be a ruse. Now workers have the worst of both worlds. Yes, they’re definitely on their own in terms of economic insecurity. But they’re not left alone. Far from it.

Is there a solution? Yes. It’s simple: radically reduce the gulf between rulers and ruled. Managers and managed. In other words, ultra-deep democracy in the workplace.

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