Informal workplaces risk becoming authoritarian

When bosses try to make companies more casual they can end up introducing bias
More human or just hot air? © Getty Images/Images Bazaar

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The unconventional management practices of United Health Programs of America, a customer services provider, have recently made headlines. Senior managers wanted to abandon the cold officialdom of the typical office and inject some humanity. Staff were encouraged to say “I love you” to each other, freely express their personalities and even pray to God in the office.

The trend of making workplaces less formal has become popular over the past few years as HR professionals ask themselves why they should expect staff to suppress their private emotions for most of the day and behave like lifeless robots.

According to Steve Hilton, a one-time adviser to former British prime minister David Cameron and author of More Human, big bureaucracy is a recipe for disengagement and alienation, killing creativity and morale. Employers need to embrace the ethos of decentralised humanism. Workers and supervisors can be good friends. Everyone can behave much like they would outside work.

Some London offices have gone the extra mile to blur the line between work and play by providing staff with booze trolleys and cocktail bars.

But the reason United Health Programs made the news was not because of the good times it created. Some workers were, in fact, very unhappy. The trouble was they did not love their co-workers. Far from it. Nor were they especially close to God. And since they felt ostracised for not buying into this love vibe they tried to sue the company.

Therein lies the dilemma of trying to foster “more human” workplaces. We know that bureaucracy squeezes the life out of a job, rendering organisations grey and dull. But when humanity is unleashed in the office, it is not just the nice, caring and fair stuff that we get as a consequence. Humans have a dark side, which is what many of those rules and regulations were designed to repress.

No doubt an ultra-personalised workspace can help increase employee engagement. But when power is added to the mix, things can just as easily turn bad. For example, there is a danger of favouritism creeping in to career progression decisions. Not in the boss’s good books? Unwilling to down copious amounts of alcohol or run for hours at the company gym with your line manager? Then you are likely to feel disadvantaged.

A recent survey by the UK’s Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development found about 60 per cent of respondents believed that their pay was not linked to performance. Other factors were clearly involved when it came to salary levels, they believed.

Formalisation is meant to remove personal bias from important management decisions by establishing uniform and objective criteria. Although it is never perfect, at least it achieves something close to a level playing field. That is especially pertinent when it comes to more sensitive issues such as promotion or misconduct procedures. Who wants an erratic, moody boss deciding whether you were in the wrong? As opposed to the trendy “be more human” doctrine that is becoming more prevalent, a bit of bureaucracy can sometimes be useful to ensure less prejudiced outcomes.

Other aspects of becoming less formal are worrying. Workers on zero-hours contracts or hired as temps know very well the unspoken requirement to ingratiate themselves with their line manager. Getting another shift depends upon it.

There is an ironic twist in the move to personalise the employer-employee relationship: if you are not willing to go along with it then your days in the company are probably numbered. It looks friendly and personable on the surface, but this environment can end up being more authoritarian than old fashioned bureaucracy, not less. As French philosopher Gilles Deleuze once quipped: “We are taught that corporations have a soul, which is the most terrifying news in the world.”

The writer is professor of business and society at Cass Business School

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