Supervision Stands in the Way of a More Humane Workplace

There’s been loads of media this past twelve months about working from home (or the inexplicably sick-making acronym, WFH) and what it means for “the future of work.”

There’s so much of this material being generated and it’s always so wildly implausible or willing to commit to a specific vision of the future that I don’t usually bother mentioning it here even when I see it.

This piece in the Guardian isn’t half bad though. It recognises the usual challenges and benefits of working from home but alights on a sensible middle-ground:

[a senior investment banker says her] ideal scenario would be to meet her team of six just once a month in the office, and she would not be afraid to challenge bosses if they asked for more. “Why would we need to do that,” she said, “with everything that we’ve proved over the past year in terms of how we’re able to conduct our business, and do it much quicker?”


More than half (53%) of workers said they would prefer a hybrid model in future, splitting their time equally between their desk and a remote location.

I see this as one of the big answers for making white-collar workplaces less appalling. Why not have a small office with a meeting room and a couple of quiet work booths for when people really do need to get together or to get away from home, and just let everyone else work from home (or wherever else they like) the rest of the time. Coordinate things with a simple remote booking system.

If it’s too expensive to maintain a workplace that could be empty of staff most of the time, bin the whole idea and just rent a meeting room or a co-working space once a month. God knows there’s enough such places popping up.

Under such halfway measures, there could be a rule about replying to flagged-as-urgent email relatively quickly when you’re on the clock and a sort of “General Order 1” about delivering your projects on time regardless of your location or circumstances.

Companies should hire people they believe can work unsupervised and then trust them to do so. “The ability to work unsupervised” has been a criterion of practically every “job spec” I’ve seen, but in practice it rarely comes up as an applicable skill.

This is probably the rub. The thrill of “supervision” is just irresistible to sadist managers (and maybe a few masochist workers too). And obviously it suits paranoid employers perfectly well to have a team under the heel of their expensively hired dungeon guards. Supervision clearly stands in the way of a more humane future workplace.

A reader emailed me last month to say that he has not enjoyed WFH precisely because his company won’t trust him and have taken to supervising his paper-shuffling efforts through remote surveillance technologies in a way that they never did when he had an office to go to.

For the sake of the environment, our health, and common sense, the future workplace needs to be the compromise described by the Guardian article. If workplaces can’t square this circle, intelligent, potentially-useful people will just have to carry on escaping them.

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