Shedding light to future work with the classical panopticon construct - A case study on transition towards hybrid collaboration practice

Maaria Nuutinen, Nina Law

    Research output: Contribution to conferenceConference AbstractScientificpeer-review


    The collaboration over cultural, geographical and organisational boundaries is crucial for many organisations. Covid-19 has enhanced a global leap in utilising digital tools for crossing those boundaries. Even though widely applied remote working has evoked concerns (e.g., isolation, reduced creativity and stress), it has also increased the independency and freedom of employees in many organisations.
    Everyone participating transparently provides clear and equal visibility to progress at work without need for separate management tasks. Digital work can be done everywhere – and any time. Does that mean physical encounters and environments lose their meaning as central settings for social and institutional context for organisations? Do we know enough about the social meanings and hidden rules previously attached to the walls of offices?
    In this study we aim to shed light on the above broad questions through an empirical case study on the transition of a research organisation within the context of developing a new campus. We refl ect this with the help of classical panopticon construct referring to the type of institutional building and a control system designed in the 18th century by Jeremy Bentham and his contemporaries brought to awareness of surveillance studies though work of Michel Foucault (Manokha, 2018). This concept has been widely used particularly in the context of technology enabled surveillance and the original ideas often misunderstood but also further developed in many fundamental philosophical and social studies (see e.g. Elmer, 2014, Galič, 2017).
    Panopticon is a very complicated issue within today’s highly digitalised work that can enable more vertical surveillance or even mutual horizontal practice (Albrechtslund, 2008) and could also turn to a fear of exile (Hafermalz, 2020). We build on the basic 12 definition of panopticon “a prison with cells (= rooms) arranged in a circle, so that the people in them can be seen at all times from the centre. As a result, they, like the ”subjects” of the panopticon, assumed responsibility for self-discipline due to the highly visible, although very often unverifiable, political monitoring. The prisoner inside the panopticon is free in just this way, able to choose between becoming a responsible worker and citizen or not.” (Cambridge English Corpus).
    Our approach is established on the practice-based school of innovating, where we as researchers are part of what is being researched (Mele et al., 2017). The studied research organisation started its project in 2019 and it will last until 2024. This study covers the period from the beginning until March 2021. The project targets are focusing on cooperation, customer and employee experience as well as adaptable facilities.
    The design of new buildings has four different scenarios on how to work within the selected office layout concept, framing the ambition level of the development as well as tensions related to those.
    Findings and discussion
    We recognised four scenario specific tensions between expectations and concerns expressed by personnel and the project targets.
    1. An office mainly with individual workstations, few other space types: Maintaining individual ways of working, ownership – concerns related to old-fashion work and inflexibility
    2. Activity based working office with dedicated areas for teams, mainly shared workstations: Enables small group cohesions and trust – concerns related to sub-cultures, unbalanced utilisation and inflexibility
    3. Whole floor for several teams, space types for different purposes, mainly shared workstations: Risen expectations towards collaboration spaces, insecurity related to broadened collective space – and (unexpected) need for extra investments on specialised working areas
    4. Event-based hybrid collaboration practice, different space types on collaboratively organised floors: Increased expectations, compared with the best at markets – need for developing the capability for organising the flexibility over organisation’s boundaries
    During the studied time, there was a gradual development from the threat of losing individual space towards flexibility and possibilities. The increased remote work seemed to accelerate the progress by reducing concerns related to maintaining knowledge work and management through encounters at the
    office. The emphasis seemed to shift towards longing for social encounters at the office, which has been difficult to reach in virtual work. The exceptional time highlighted the need for understanding the shift of hidden rules from physical to virtual rooms.
    Now it is crucial to learn more about what this rapid change means for the campus project: what are the new means of leading creative knowledge work in a hybrid environment in such way that the panoptic approach serves both the motivation of “the model prisoners” and the organisational productivity measures. The findings of this study indicate, however, that there might be longer term change in “power and control balance” related to the way people are available and express that they are present challenging further the conceptualisations of panopticon and participation (cf. Galič, et al, 2017, Albrechtslund, 2008) as well as applying them in practice of organisations. This requires more research.
    Original languageEnglish
    Publication statusPublished - 19 Aug 2021
    MoE publication typeNot Eligible
    EventWORK2021 : Work beyond crises - Virtual
    Duration: 18 Aug 202119 Aug 2021


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