Your Employees Are Adults, Stop Going All Big Brother On Them

            I’ve noticed some changes in my legal practice since the pandemic hit two and a half years ago. The number of discrimination plaintiffs who come to see me has been gradually declining, probably by about twenty percent. On the other hand, the number of folks coming to me to organize or improve their labor unions has increased significantly.

            I haven’t done any in-depth studies on why this is happening, but I can make some educated guesses.

            Because how we work has changed in meaningful ways, our interactions and expectations at work have changed as well. There is less face-to-face contact with co-workers on a day-to-day basis. Our connections to our bosses and colleagues are more likely to occur over Slack, Zoom, email, or texting rather than through daily, in-person meetups. That means that the likelihood of workplace sexual harassment, for example, has declined.

            And when our connections with co-workers are no longer in-person, we tend to focus more on the work that is being done rather than on the personalities doing the work. Conflict, when it arises, is correlated with work performance rather than with the idiosyncrasies and human differences that define us. That means fewer chances for claims of discrimination to arise.

            On the other hand, with workplaces changing in monumental ways, folks are feeling more vulnerable on the job. The standards that we grew up with no longer apply. You don’t have to show up in an office at a particular time anymore. In fact, you don’t even have to show up.

            But you are also expected to be available at unusual times and to handle more matters without direct oversight. This can create anxiety: worries about job security, expectations, and performance can abound. Folks are looking for a safety net that used to be provided by clear rules and boundaries that no longer exist. So they turn to unions or something like unions. They want a voice and they want certainty. Unions can provide that.

            As we have begun to settle in to new work expectations, some employers have embraced the possibilities. Others have been dragged in reluctantly, and they are still trying to apply the same rules to new conditions.

            They want to be able to monitor their employees to ensure that the hours that are being paid for are actually being worked. And so we have seen the development of monitoring software that allows employers to track employees’ screen time and ensure that while sitting in front of a screen, employees are actually working and not sleeping or playing solitaire. It all seems so invasive and Big Brother-ish.

            These tracking applications though do not necessarily track productivity of workers. They track certain kinds of activity like mouse clicks, and messages sent and received, and video meetings attended. But how could they ever track engagement, creativity, or actual production?

            Employers who can thrive in the new paradigm understand that it really does not matter when you work or how you work; what matters is whether you produce the desired and necessary outcomes. Employers who understand this new dynamic the way the next generation of workers already does will likely grow and prosper. The employers who sit at their desks studying activity reports are likely setting themselves up for failure.

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