The writer is an associate professor of organisational behaviour at Insead
Until the start of this year, the future of work was the main focus of the academics, consultants and executives whose business it is to make profitable predictions. The century of management seemed past. Some lamented the lack of new management theories. Others observed that the bureaucracies of the 20th century, whose existence depended on managers, were giving way to tech platforms that had little use for them. Algorithms were better at coordinating those platforms’ loosely affiliated and widely distributed workers. The robots were slowly coming for managers’ offices. Only tech-savvy leaders would survive.
Then the virus came, and all that future seemed to arrive at once. The pandemic turned out to be a boon for that new breed of tech leaders and their platforms, turning them from disrupters to protectors of our working lives overnight. Zoom, Skype, Slack and their likes were there to bolster the productivity of people who can work from home, the very knowledge workers whose jobs tech was meant to threaten next.
The new normal does not just look like the old future of work. It looks a lot like its distant past. The digital revolution — a world of work without workplaces and management without managers — owes much to a theory dreamt up by Frederick Taylor, considered by many to be the first management guru, in the early 20th century. Putting forward his principles of “scientific management”, Taylor cast managers in his own image, as dispassionate engineers whose duty was to use hard data to improve efficiency and minimise human errors.
Taylor’s vision sparked the same sort of opposition that today’s techno-utopian disrupters encounter from management pundits. In his case it came from Elton Mayo, a Harvard Business School professor whose work provided the inspiration for the “human relations” movement. Experimenting with conditions at a Western Electric plant outside Chicago, Mayo and his colleagues observed that employees were most productive when they were given enough rest and attention, and were encouraged to cultivate informal relationships.
The distillation of the scholars’ tussle became a mantra that survives to this day: managers must be ruthless, nicely. Business school curricula and many corporate models still have that imperative at their core.
There have always been those who argue that management should be a more human, artistic, and political profession. That it should foster wellbeing, civility, equality, and democracy at work. But these concerns have earned, at best, secondary roles in the history of management. The pursuit of efficiency remained its protagonist.
This mechanical view has drained many organisations of the humanity they needed when things get tough — and it set management up for disruption. It was only a matter of time until actual machines could provide the comforting surveillance that managers did.
No wonder that the pandemic seems to have plunged management into a midlife crisis, the kind of existential strain that many of us experience when a sudden illness reveals our vulnerabilities. The break in our routines, and suddenly salient mortality, force us to ask questions that we can easily ignore in the daily grind of work. What is the purpose of what I do? Whose life is it that I am really living? What must I let go? What can I no longer postpone?
If they are not wasted amid blame and denial, those crises can change our way of life. So while the existential crisis of management was under way before the coronavirus arrived, it has now become impossible to ignore. The pandemic has exposed the limits of managers with a singular concern for productivity. But it has renewed appreciation for those who show equal concern for people’s wellbeing.
Ever since the crisis hit, many of us have been moved by managers’ gestures of care big and small, be they efforts to avoid lay-offs and keep workers safe, or reassurances that performance assessments would take into account individuals’ circumstances. Those concrete gestures have been far more convincing and inspiring than statements about caring for purpose as much as profits.
Building a movement on those sentiments could let us humanise management, at last. We could call it “Human Relations 2.0”, although the name doesn’t matter. As long as it helps management mature into an enterprise that counters digitally enhanced isolation and polarisation and frees people up to live and work in pluralistic institutions.
Then this existential crisis might bring to life a new future of work. One in which rumours of the demise of management will turn out to have been greatly exaggerated.
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