Employees are people not cogs

December 24, 2011

I just came across this article on Volkswagen shutting off email to some employees in an effort to improve work-life balance.

I understand the thinking and feeling behind this action. People feel that the culture isn’t serving them but they feel powerless to change it. They want some powerful outside force (outside as in – not them) to intervene and make the problem disappear. I believe this will have some positive effect. Yet, I have mixed feelings about this and all similar policies and programs that mandate or outlaw certain behaviors in an effort to create desired outcomes.

On one hand, as I said, this will work (to some degree). I have advised some of my clients to do just this. To wire change into the system by making it the default and bypassing the need for people to understand, accept and internalize the desired behavior. Often, this just works faster. As the architect of an organization or as one accountable for results, this is often what you want.

On the other hand, I find this dehumanizing. What makes us human – what separates us from amoebae – is our will, our awareness of that will and our ability to think about and execute a plan of action to effect our will. In short, we can intelligently direct our actions towards our goals. What’s dehumanizing about slavery is not that it is physically uncomfortable. We do all sorts of things to ourselves willingly that are physically uncomfortable: we run marathons, we wear high heels, we dress in rubber and ask people to spank us (or so I’ve heard). No. What’s dehumanizing about slavery is that it hijacks the energies of a person and directs them away from that person’s will and towards the will of another. In doing so, it turns the person into an object not a subject, a means not an end.

In a way, that’s what VW is doing here. Sure, it’s doing so in an effort to be kind to its workers. So I guess it’s treating them not maliciously like slaves but benignly like pets. But it’s still dehumanizing. They are creating a system that renders human thought and intentional action obsolete.

I get it. It’s really hard to change the behavior of a single individual. It’s much harder to change the behavior of an organization. It’s even harder to create lasting organizational change.

But our nobility as humans lies in overcoming obstacles not running from them. It is worthwhile to marshal our passion, our wit, our charisma, and anything else we can draw upon to solve our problems. We don’t only benefit from the outcome. We also benefit from engaging in the fight and finding a way to win – I would argue that we benefit much more from that than from the outcome alone.

In a way, VW is cravenly capitulating to the less productive aspects of human nature instead of calling on our more productive qualities to improve our condition.

What do I propose instead? Leave the email system on. And if you get one after hours and don’t want to work, then don’t read it. Get together with your fellow workers and agree not to read after-hours emails. And if there are managers that penalize workers for not responding to after-hours emails then fire them. This puts the onus back onto people. It requires that they have courage. That they think. That they partner with other people. That they act like people.

BTW, I also find approaches like this objectionable on utilitarian grounds. Shutting down the email server doesn’t change what people value. It doesn’t change the way they think. It doesn’t alter their incentives. People believe these solutions are silver bullets. But without having changed hearts, minds, or skills, these solutions are unlikely to work for long. Sure, the emails won’t go through. But people can still call each other after hours. Managers can assign work at the very end of the day and require it to be complete first thing the next day. And so on. VW’s approach ignores the systemic factors that give rise to the behavior they want to change. People aren’t sending each other emails after hours because there’s a functioning email server. They’re sending each other emails because they have work to get done, they haven’t figured out a way to get it done during business hours and they believe email will help. Instead of shutting down the server, VW ought to look at how much work it assigns people, how efficiently they work, what kind of behavior their incentive system creates, the relationships between managers and employees, and so on. Understanding that system and laboring to make it work better is worthy work. Hitting the switch on the server – however well-intentioned – is lazy and shortsighted.

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