Would you rather be watched or forgotten at work?

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New paper on control in remote work published in Organization Studies by KIN researcher dr. Ella Hafermalz


Remember the feeling of not being invited to a party?

Everyone else is having fun and no one thought of you. Maybe they don’t remember your name or even know who you are. It is not a nice feeling and most would do a lot to avoid it.Remote workers

This fear of missing out, and a sense that you are overlooked, ignored, or excluded from wherever it is you want to be, is unfortunately familiar to us all.

It is also a problem that remote workers deal with today. They can feel excluded from the head office and fear that they are being forgotten or ignored.

In my research I point out that this fear of being forgotten – which I call a fear of exile – is driving remote workers to use digital technologies to make themselves visible. Both to management and others in the organisation.


Escaping manager control

It is surprising that remote workers use technology to make themselves visible because historically, technology has been used to control remote workers. Managers assumed that employees who can’t be seen will avoid work. So they were eager to install software that helped them keep track of remote employees.

Now though there is a new style of management that encourages self-organizing teams. Commitment is highly valued and team members even think of each other as family. In this ‘new culture’ context being visible is not a punishment – it is a condition of belonging.


Fighting to be seen

It is especially in such organisations, where team membership is emphasised and some people work from home and others work in the office, that remote workers can struggle with feeling invisible. Technology is then used by these workers to fight and even compete for visibility, much the same way that a new brand needs to fight to get noticed in a crowded market.

For example, one remote worker started using Yammer to post updates of his daily work. His boss was immediately impressed that this remote worker had “made himself visible” to her, so that she noticed him. 

Another remote worker asked his colleagues to ‘put him on the lunch table’ via a laptop with a video conferencing link. He ate lunch alongside his distant colleagues in the city office from his home in rural Australia.

An entire remote team who started to feel like they were in exile decided to reconnect to each other and the office using a more extreme method. They dialled in to a video conference in the morning and left it on all day. A screen in the head office displayed this call, showing each team member working in their homes. One of the remote workers said he felt chained to his desk at first – he didn’t want to walk away from the screen in case he seemed lazy. But over time he got used to it and said that the always-on video made him feel part of the team again.


Why would anyone volunteer to be observed all day?

Critical researchers are used to thinking about visibility in terms of surveillance. But in some situations, workers want to and even need to be seen. For recognition, promotion, and opportunities. Understanding the idea that remote workers fear ‘exile’ is a helpful framework because it pushes us beyond the idea that visibility is bad (surveillance) and to think about why people willingly use technology to try to be seen.

Posting updates and sharing personal information on company social media to ‘catch management’s eye’ takes a lot of ongoing work, and can even lead to unhealthy competition between workers. It is therefore important for leaders and office team members to be proactive and help those who feel like they are being overlooked.


Tips for managers of remote workers include:

  • Schedule weekly 1-1 catch ups with each remote worker (and stick to them!)
  • Nominate a remote worker advocate who makes sure that remote team members are dialled in to meetings and have the information they need (e.g. we are running 5 minutes late because the screen isn’t working, we have an important visitor today, etc.)
  • Think about your company practices – how are decisions made? Who gets to take part? If everything important happens around a boardroom table, many workers are being left out and don’t know where the ship is sailing. Help distributed employees to get the bigger picture through regular strategy updates.

So what do you think, is it worse to be watched, or forgotten?

Read my take in this recently published theoretical paper in Organization Studies. Please share any reflections with us.

Twitter: @ellahafermalz / @KINResearch


Read the paper open access here

Full citation: Hafermalz, E. (2020). Out of the Panopticon and into Exile: Visibility and Control in Distributed New Culture Organizations. Organization Studies. https://doi.org/10.1177/0170840620909962


Check out a podcast where we discuss my article on Information Innovation @ UTS


About the author

Ella Hafermalz is an Assistant Professor at KIN. Her PhD looked at how remote workers use technology to stay connected with each other and the organization. Ella’s recent research is on Explainable AI in work and organizing.