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IS THERE AN EMOTICON FOR PANOPTICON?

Would you let your boss into your email inbox?

A library clerk works on a computer.
AP/Gregory Bull
Nothing to see here.
  • Simone Stolzoff
By Simone Stolzoff

Technology Reporter

This article is more than 2 years old.

In Silicon Valley, transparency is celebrated—at least in concept.

Software engineers open-source their code so that others may build upon it. Employees make their calendars public so that coworkers can see when they’re available. Managers write posts about their revenue numbers on Medium for the world to see.

But not everything in tech is out in the open. At most companies, there’s a lack of transparency about how much anyone gets paid. Companies operate in stealth mode for a years for fear of a competitor stealing their ideas. And email, the place where employees, especially the non-technical ones, get a lot of work done, is often a black box for anyone except the inbox’s owner.

One tech CEO is trying to change that by encouraging her employees to openly share their inboxes with her.

“When I tell people they can share their inbox with me, they think it doesn’t seem right,” says Mathilde Collin, co-founder and CEO of the workplace communications startup Front. “But after a few days of doing it, they see the upside is far bigger than the downside.”

Sharing one’s inbox is particularly relevant for Front, which allows companies to do just that. With Front, employees can create a shared inbox with their team or start a team-wide chat conversation directly from the email app. Sharing an email is as easy as tagging a coworker, rather than having to ever forward or bcc again. It turns email into a spark for conversation rather than another isolated message sitting in a digital mailbox.

But operating from a team-wide email address is very different from essentially giving your boss the keys to your work apartment. Collin says that a majority of Front’s management team and new hires voluntarily share their inboxes with her. Within the app, there’s an ability to keep sensitive information private, but Collin says the default is transparency. And she leads by example.

Collin shares Front’s product roadmap, fundraising decks, and her daily schedule publicly for the world to see.

She believes that having access to her colleagues’ inboxes gives her the ability to give them practical advice alongside where their work is actually being done. Rather than just wait for a yearly performance review, Front employees get feedback that they can use in real time.

But knowing that your boss could, at any time, look over your digital shoulder might also have a chilling effect on your work. Imagine having an intimate conversation with a coworker at a cocktail party, and then your boss walks up to you. The nature of the conversation changes.

There’s a certain freedom in knowing you can conduct business your way, without fear of being watched. Even if you’ve got nothing to hide, knowing someone—and especially your boss—could be there with you would undoubtedly alter your behavior. The question is: Would those changes be for the better? Front clearly would argue yes.

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