Lockdown and its aftermath have led more and more employees to work from home. Many big firms have already said they won’t even attempt to get back staff back to the office until next year, at the earliest, amid discussions about how working from home could become the new normal for at least part of the week.
Working from home has a lot of advantages for many people. It can make childcare easier, for example. Employees can avoid having to deal with annoying colleagues or coughing up for long, expensive and often uncomfortable commutes.
They can also avoid having their bosses constantly looking over their shoulder – or can they?
Employers are using ever more sophisticated measures to keep tabs on their home-working staff, anxious that they might be shirking, and introducing new rules governing how their workers appear and act.
One large London employer, Hammersmith & Fulham Council, has even gone as far as banning its employees from smoking at their desks at home, demanding that “any part of a private dwelling used solely for work purposes will be required to be smoke-free” and that “family members should not be allowed to smoke in the home worker’s office”. The council claims the policy has since been dropped, presumably because it is unenforceable. (Though, with webcams now ubiquitous, maybe not.) It’s also irrational since smoking at home can hardly affect your colleagues or the public image of your employer.
Smokers have long been in the vanguard of interference in our private lives. But having precedent for interference in our private lives having been established, the rules applied to smokers have inspired other kinds of meddling.
Most obvious in the current situation is the use of technological measures to monitor staff. Such surveillance is not new, but it’s taken on new importance and is much more widespread in the Covid era. A recent feature in Wired notes the rise of this surveillance culture. As author Alex Christian notes:
“As coronavirus lays waste to workplaces around the world, surveillance software has flourished: programs such as ActivTrak, Time Doctor, Teramind and Hubstaff have all reported a post-lockdown sales surge. Once installed, they offer an array of covert monitoring tools, with managers able to view screenshots, login times and keystrokes at will to ensure employees remain on track working remotely. Although marketed as productivity software, the technology – dubbed as ‘bossware’ for its secrecy and invasiveness – has led to many workers finding creative ways of evading its omniscient gaze.”
Employees working within these strictures face a reprimand or even the sack for low productivity or taking too long on their break. One app, Sneek, covertly takes photos of employees to see if they are at their desks. Project management programs such as Jira and Basecamp, meanwhile, can allow bosses to spot when workers are not maintaining a high level of output. Frequent online team meetings on Zoom or Microsoft Teams can ensure staff are at least thinking about work – and woe betides anyone who’s still in their pyjamas or doesn’t show up at all.
Of course, there are workarounds if you’re smart enough. One way is to move your mouse regularly – or to instal software to give the illusion it’s being moved. But the whole thing has the potential to create a sense that Big Brother Bossman is watching you constantly.
It’s bad enough that working from home leads many people into the trap of blurring work and home life. That time on the commute, when you might at least be reading or listening to music or a podcast, becomes work time. It’s easy to see how all of this leads to the intensification of work.
Moreover, working from home deprives us of the solidarity and consolation of colleagues. It’s harder to band together to push back against the imposition of new rules and regulations if you don’t see your peers face to face. Many jobs are intense and stressful, but working in an office allows staff to sound off to each other informally in the pub on a Friday night – or maybe hear about better opportunities elsewhere.
Working from home can also be a disaster for younger employees, who need to learn the ropes from their experienced colleagues. It’s harder to learn and to make a good impression with those that count, over video calls.
While a middle-class employee with a comfortable and spacious home may wax lyrical about the benefits of working from home, for many people, it’s becoming an ever more intensive and stressful experience. Knowing that your boss could be spying on you just adds paranoia and fear to the mix.
We may well be heading backwards in the world of work. In pre-industrial times and beyond, garment-makers would work themselves to death during long hours to service the demands of buyers, paid as they were by the piece and not by the hour, and isolated in their home from other such workers. We need to be very careful that the modern, connected, the domesticated workplace doesn’t take us down the same route.