Welcome to your Cubicle, Prisoner 10997

by Simon Terry

Our organisations learn how to manage human behaviour to productive ends from many aspects of society. The history of management shows many examples where it has borrowed from coercive human relationships, such as the organisational structures of military, the practices of slavery or the corrections system, because of the shared themes of control and coping with the complexities of human relationships at scale. If we are to create workplaces that have the necessary degrees of freedom to enable people to address the complex challenges of digital networks and realise their human potential, we need to be aware of these influences and to challenge control for its own sake.

This post examines an example of how the influence runs in both directions.  The tide in the business press is running against the supposed productivity of open plan offices. At the same time we welcome an open plan prison.

Your Cubicle For Life

If anyone doubted the parallels between the modern office environment and a security state, the NSW Government just opened a new high security prison in Cessnock in the Hunter Valley. The facility has 400 beds in dormitory pods. The radical innovation of the new facility, which has been borrowed from Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, is that it has done away with cell walls and with privacy. Anyone will recognise the formats of those pods as cubicle arrays in an open plan office.

abc cubicle
(Photo Credit: ABC News)

As with any open plan office, the facility has no privacy and a focus on monitoring of behaviour.

Correctional officers monitor inmates around the clock from first-floor corridors overlooking the pods and with infra-red cameras for night monitoring; and Immediate Action Team officers are stationed within the facility to provide a 24/7 response to critical incidents.” – Cessnock Advertiser

A key focus of the new facility is to use the new openness and flexible spaces to foster interaction and relationships between inmates.  Instead of sensory deprivation, the inmates will now need to deal with an excess of human interaction.

“For many that is culture change. The previous thinking has been minimal interaction with inmates.” – Newcastle Herald

The pitch is not that different from co-working giant, WeWork’s own residential facilities, WeLive. Of course, WeLive facilities have a scheme that includes colours other than grey.

“From mailrooms and laundry rooms that double as bars and event spaces to communal kitchens, roof decks, and hot tubs, WeLive challenges traditional apartment living through physical spaces that foster meaningful relationships. Life is better when we are part of something greater than ourselves. Whether short term or long term, WeLive has flexible options designed to meet your needs.”

And so the lines between those space concepts blur.

In any case, employee engagement is the focus of the modern office. Productive use of time will be carefully managed in this new open plan environment.  Employees will be guaranteed 5 hours of productive work, which is more than most open plan environments:

“The inmates’ days have been carefully structured in a way that focuses on intense participation and access to education, employment, programs and activities.” – Cessnock Advertiser

Recruitment processes for this new office will also be intensive to ensure an appropriate cultural fit and to sustain the desired levels of engagement in a vibrant collaborative culture. Like any good employee fit process, those who fail the test are subject to exile but we won’t discuss where.

“Mr Severin said inmates will be carefully screened – and if they don’t fit the profile, will be placed elsewhere.” – Cessnock Advertiser

So, the real rationale for the new office appears to be its low cost and rapid construction. Never let real human relationships interfere with a low cost property strategy, right?

It is only a matter of time before the innovations in Cessnock cross back into our living and working. Expect to see technology giants leading the way removing flexible working, requiring their employees to use their working for greater productivity and to restore human relationships.

Is it such a distant step to living facilities in a subtle elegant shade of metallic grey? Or to WeWork’s laundry room bars? We will just need to remember that privacy terms and conditions apply and this lifestyle will be available only to approved applicants.

Simon Terry will be speaking at DISRUPT.SYDNEY 2018 to elaborate on these themes in his talk “If your company was a country, would you live there?

 

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