The panopticon approach

The Panopticon or Panoptic power structure is a type of institutional building designed by the great English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham in the late 18th century. It is an environment that allows people that are in control to monitor every action performed by the controlled. It’s a disciplinary power that tries to push it rules of conduct on the person being monitored to get social control. A nice example of a panoptic way of thinking is the song lyrics of “Every breath you take – The Police”, they’re singing about watching every move, breath, step etc. you make. This is exactly what happens in a panoptic managed environment.

In Fleming and Sturdy’s (2011) article there is an example of a call-centre named Sunray that applies a panoptic power structure, it is more like a panoptic prison in my eyes. Working at Sunray’s demands a routine of eight-hour shifts, with two 15-minute rest periods and a half-hour meal break. Employees have temporary contracts, with hourly pay rates and are rewarded for good performance. But wait there is more; Sunray’s applied a Taylor look-a-like system named the Automatic Call Distribution technology; this system helps managers to monitor every call. Managers can extract data like average speed times and average answer times and use this data for training purposes or to rewrite predesigned scripts that should help the employee to keep a steady pass throughout a call.
The call centre that Fleming and Sturdy (2011) use in their research tries not to apply a panoptic way of managing, but in the end it’s just a ‘freedom around control’ as Fleming and Sturdy (2011) note.

Rational-bureaucratic control and humanistic-normative control

In Fleming and Sturdy’s (2011) study the call centre Sunray’s is trying to apply a mixture of rational-bureaucratic control and humanistic-normative control. If seen from Douglas McGregor viewpoints it would be a mix between theory X & Y, or hard and soft management styles. First rational-bureaucratic control, the hard management approach, is applied to the way they manage employees. The employees have clear task specializations, actions are standardized and subjected to discipline. For example they have an average of eight minutes for bank inquiries calls and insurance calls are averaged at 15 minutes. To meet these requirements they have prewritten scripts to help the conversation going smooth. Rest and meal breaks are limited to 15 and 30 minutes. Trainings and weekly team meetings help discipline the employees. These are clear signs of a rational-bureaucratic control method.

But Sunray’s is also giving the work ambiance a more humanistic-normative feeling, the soft management approach, by introducing the ‘being yourself ‘ attitude at work. They have a slogan ‘remember the 3F’s: Focus, Fun, Fulfillment’ to support this being yourself feeling in trainings, away days, recruitment documentation and appraisal meetings. They implement the fun factor in the training manual by stating that ‘work is fun instead of work’. And try to bring informal aspects like human relations, motivation and social processes into the work floor. That helps preventing the work to be dull, alienating or dehumanizing. They encourage people to take their own changes and decisions without the approval of a manager, this helps limiting the hierarchical chain of command and creating a flat managed organization. All these factors indicate that they apply a humanistic-normative management style at Sunray’s.

Humanistic-normative control is everywhere but never 100% applied because of the rational-bureaucratic control part. But the regime in Sunray is trying to make the rational-bureaucratic way of working easier on the eye and mind by using humanistic factors.

Scientific views of an panoptic system

Frederick Taylor’s approach of seeing an organization as a machine applies to Sunray because of the standardization or formalization of work processes. You have strict tasks and deadlines, targets and there is no room for own innovation in your work process. Besides that you’re on constant surveillance of managers and even a machine that records all call data.

Douglas McGregor’s view on the management at Sunrays is that a part of theory Y is applied. This is seen for example in the 3F’s slogan and in the ‘work is fun’ statement. Employees should see work as natural and fun, they can be themselves at work and are also motivated to go to work. Their organization should be one social community with informal aspects like relations and social processes and you can make your own changes without the permission of a manager. But McGregor’s theory X assumes people are lazy by nature and need a standardization of the work process where panoptic power can be applied to improve performances. This reflects in the exact break times, monitoring systems and prewritten scripts.

Gideon Kunda uses corporate culture as a management tool that is based on trust, like a family. The company promises a life-long employment and good rewards in exchange for personal commitment and emotional investment. In that way culture becomes having control over people, they feel obligated to help and invest in the company.

Kunda (1992) describes control is being shaped by identities, attitudes, emotion and beliefs of an employee. In Sunray they are trying to get away from the boring office look by encouraging a theme of the culture of fun and self-expression. This helps to improve positive emotions and attitudes employees have towards the company vision of ‘being yourself’.


  • Fleming, P., & Sturdy, A. (2011). ‘Being yourself’ in the electronic sweatshop: New forms of normative control. Human Relations, 64(2), 177-200.
  • Stephan, R. & Kunda, G (1992). Design and Devotion: Surges of Rational and Normative Ideologies of Control in Managerial Discourse. Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 37(3), 363-399.

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