chef looking over another chef's shoulder
Editorial

Do You Need Supervising?

6 minute read
Sam Marshall avatar
Many cases against workplace supervision are predicated on it being about control. But what if it was more about coordination?

How do you feel about those restaurants with open kitchens, where you can see your food being prepared? I find it reassuring. It shows confidence in skills and hygiene, and sometimes I even learn a little. But how do you think the chefs and cooks feel about it?

One angle on the debate about hybrid working is that the leaders most vocally pushing for a return to the office are doing so from a desire to control — to impose a kind of surveillance. The motivation is less about the well-being of workers or productivity and more a reflection of low trust levels.

I’m guessing that by choosing an open kitchen, the chefs feel more empowered than if they had a closed kitchen that they had to submit to inspection. If it was me, I’d feel it kept me on my toes, but I’d feel good about that if our food standards stayed high and I saw people enjoying their meal.

Nobody wants to feel like they are constantly monitored, but (somewhat to my own surprise) I’ve concluded that we should voluntarily accept a level of supervision if we care about the quality of our collaborative output. To do this in a hybrid way involves us also changing how we use our digital workplaces.

You Don’t Need Supervising

Many people feel supervision is an outdated idea. Even back in the 1920s, General Motors CEO Alfred P. Sloan advocated “letting people get on with their jobs.” Supervision, if over-controlling, can lead to a kind of learned helplessness, where people stop thinking for themselves and just wait for instructions. It’s both belittling and demotivating.

Some also argue that supervision crushes creativity: if you feel obliged to do things in a certain way, there’s no scope for experimentation and invention.

[Related: Why Play Is Important for Digital Literacy]

Organizationally, there are good reasons to cut back on supervision too. It requires extra management layers and extra cost — something most industries have been trying to slim down for decades. Approval steps can also slow processes down: how many weeks get added to delivery times because a document is stuck waiting for someone senior to sign off on it?

The work relationship of freelancers is a particularly interesting variation on this. Usually freelancers have a review-signoff relationship with the client, but very little supervision. This can work well, but often because those who flourish as freelancers are self-filtered to be effective on their own, and usually do tasks they are already expert in. Freelancers can also, however, miss out on the support element that comes from having a line manager, leading to more frequent burnout.

You Do Want Supervising

You’ll notice the case against supervision is predicated on it being about control. But what if supervision was more about coordination? It can be very hard to be immersed in a task, while simultaneously ensuring that what you are doing is in sync with others. That’s why the project manager role can be invaluable. It can even be motivating to have someone else do this — a promised deadline to my editor on this very site has got me out of many a writing rut!

Coordination can also be about consistency. Chris, Ali and Max may all produce delicious, but different cupcakes. If they are to be delivered in the same customer batch they must also look the same. Somebody has to specify or broker that.

Thirdly, we all get busy at times, and it’s easy to be heads-down in a 'just get it done' mindset. It helps to have somebody a step removed with an eye on standards. That might be to remind us not to cut safety corners, but also it feels good to get positive feedback for high-standard work, to feel that somebody else cares.

Lastly, we should recognize that not everybody wants autonomy or responsibility. They may enjoy undemanding work where they get told what to do, and save their mental energies for their family, charity or faith.

Learning Opportunities

Related Article: Successful Companies Offer Engagement, Not Employee Surveillance

Open Digital Workplaces: Make Work Observable

I think those working digitally can take a similar approach to the open kitchen concept. I always used to draft work for clients in private and then send it over as a near-final draft. But recently I’ve started sharing much earlier versions, leaving the document in a shared cloud space where clients can dip in at any time. So long as they are aware that they will see work-in-progress it works fine. Sometimes they can steer me away from the wrong path earlier, or they will be prompted to remember some relevant background information and send it over (“we did a study on that last year, we could use some of the data here”). Sometimes it's good to get early positive feedback too (“do more sections like this one”). In effect I’m inviting their supervision.

Those familiar with the original concept of working out loud (WOL) will see parallels here. Bryce Williams described it as:

Working Out Loud   =   Observable Work   +   Narrating Your Work

WOL works really well for some, but the part about "narrating your work" can lead to an awful lot of noise. Here I’m advocating the more ambient awareness that comes from the observable work side.

Microsoft seems to share this idea — Office 365 keeps making inroads in this area. For example, on Delve you can see documents your colleagues have worked on recently, so long as you too have access.

Microsoft 365 delve tool
In Microsoft 365’s Delve tool you can see documents recently worked on by colleagues.

Back to the open kitchen, Quora.com has some interesting chef’s perspectives on the downsides. They can feel burned out by having to perform to an audience. Some feel they can’t be their true selves, that they have to tone down the joking and the emotions that can be part of working intensely. They worry too that customers don’t like mistakes (“sometimes you burn food, it happens”).

Translating this back into the digital world, we are luckier. Working openly doesn’t mean working under a 9-5 webcam. You can still have a ‘back channel’ with your colleagues to vent, to joke, etc. All you have to do share is the work product — it’s like an open kitchen where customers can focus on the cooking, not the cooks. But that little bit of supervision can make the whole thing more rewarding.

About the author

Sam Marshall

Sam Marshall is the owner of ClearBox Consulting and has specialized in intranets and the digital workplace for over 20 years, providing consultancy to companies such as AstraZeneca, Diageo, Sony, GSK and Unilever.

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