Between Retro- and Neo-Taylorism: A Brief Review of “Severance” on AppleTV+

The dystopian workplace TV series “Severance”, which has been described as a mixture of “Lost” and “The Office” and was nominated for 14 (!) Emmy Awards, offers a lot of reflection for anyone interested in organization and management. Having finished the show’s first season comprising 9 one-hour episodes, let me offer some observations in this blog post (which is based on a Twitter thread).

Let’s start with the Retro-Tayloristic premise and setting: the basic idea of the “severance procedure”, which separates employee’s non-work memories from work memories, describes the ultimate wet dream of Tayloristic management scholars and professionals. Taylor’s “Scientific Management” treats organizations as machines and workers as tools that ought to follow formalized operational procedures to the letter. Management’s task is to develop, measure, optimize and control these procedures. This is exactly what the severance procedure promises to offer: workers able to solely focus on work tasks they do not (need to) understand without any personal and extra-organizational interference or distraction.

Severance’s dystopian depiction of tayloristic ideas is timely. While Taylorism has been criticized in organization and management studies for close to a century by now, first and foremost by debunking the “Scientific” in “Scientific Management”, it has never vanished as a management philosophy or approach in practice.

Rather, we observe a revival of Neo-Taloristic approaches driven by new digital technologies. Think of Amazon’s warehouse workers who receive precise algorithm-based instructions where to pick up which package in what order, with GPS devices measuring and live-reporting (the speed of) every step they take.

(I have recklessly borrowed this great picture from slides of my dear colleague Richard Weiskopf, without asking for a proper source. In any case, please do not overlook the “picker” in the lower left corner of the image).

Severance takes this idea of technologically enforced Taylorism to its extreme. The severed worker does not know anything other than (written) workplace rules, work-related tasks and work-related personal relations. Alienation is here considered to not be a bug but a feature of corporate culture.

Of course, even in Severence’s most radical version, Taylorism’s inherent disregard for all that makes us human and its ignorance of the fact, that slavish work-to-rule is a form of strike, ends not just in oppression but resistance, as well. However, Severance has more to offer than just debunking Taylorism.

Talking about resistance, the role of codified knowledge in Severence deserves attention. During the first episodes, the handbook with its bureaucratic and strict rules is clearly introduced as an instrument of oppression. However, the major plot-twist in the final episode is only possible because of meticulously documented procedures that enable a rebellion.

A more classic motif of worker and workplace resistance in Severance is the importance to organize collectively. By spatially and communicatively separating departments, Lumon’s management follows a classic divide-and-rule approach. Since controlling isolated individuals is much easier, isolation (from the outside, from others on the inside) is the key instrument of control in Severence. As soon as workers manage to cooperate, corporate power begins to crumble.

Another recurrent issue in Severance is the cult around Lumon’s founder Kier Eagan, representing the leader/CEO worship culture that has been a constant in capitalist economies guided by the “Visible Hand” of the likes of a Henry Ford, a Steve Jobs, or an Elon Musk.

Also, the evil Lumon corporation with its self-imposed and publicly propagated mission to improve the world by making a fortune at the same time, thereby disregarding collateral damage to individuals as well as society, is modelled after real-world tech giants.

To sum it up, I can only recommend watching Severance and I am convinced it offers valuable reflection material for teaching organization theory; actually, I am happy for any ideas about how to incorporate some snippets of the show into courses of our “Organization Studies” master program here in Innsbruck. At last, I see the irony that the show is delivered by AppleTV+ while Apple certainly exhibits more than one parallel with Lumon.

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