Is Office Supervision New? Not Even Remotely

Have you ever slid your iPhone out of shot on Zoom? Wriggled your mouse to stay ‘active’? Or maybe watched yourself once or twice on a call to see if your expression really does look engaged? 

If you’ve done any of these things — like me — you could very well have an internalised ‘manager gaze’. You’ve become so aware of how you’re observed as a worker, that you’ve started to self-edit your behaviour before your employer has the opportunity to track it. These are just some of the experiences that point at the trouble of office surveillance, and it’s having quite a moment. 

The New York Times lifted the lid on the state of such supervision in a 2022 project, and what it found was unsurprisingly existential. Eight of the ten largest private US employers track the productivity metrics of individual workers. And many of those are tracked in real time. 

The report revealed instances of software used by companies that capture screenshots of your laptop and yourself every ten minutes to see if you were working. If you weren’t, your pay was deducted accordingly. Think of it as the Black Mirror meets BeReal power couple that no one asked for. 

Think of it as the Black Mirror meets BeReal power couple that no one asked for. 

But even outside of the extreme cases, everyday remote office watching is on the up. Some 2022 estimates suggest the number of large firms monitoring workers has doubled since the pandemic in the UK. It’s just gotten a lot easier than it was in the olden days of the 2000s, when your manager would have to awkwardly sidle past and try to catch sight of your screen over your shoulder. Back then, unless your seniors could shape-shift into plants or water-coolers, it would have been pretty obvious when they were trying to catch you out.

There’s plenty of headlines tooting the latest developments as a fundamental power shift in employee to employer relations. But none of these reports have done the research we have. It turns out, office surveillance has quite a meaty history.

There were significant concerns regarding monitoring back in the late 1980s, when personal computers first entered the office. At the time, philosopher and psychologist Soshana Zuboff accused the PC of being an ‘information panopticon’. (A panopticon is an 18th century circular prison model, where the cells are designed to circle a central tower in which a guard stands. Because the prisoner can’t see the guard, but knows he’s there, they can never be sure if they’re being observed or not, making the guard omnipresent). 

And is invasive time-tracking that much of a modern concept, when at the turn of the 20th Century we had Frederick Winslow Taylor? He was so keen on ‘performance monitoring’ workers to hit production targets, that he lent his name to the movement it birthed. ‘Taylorism’ established the ultra-creepy notion that an unobserved worker was an inefficient one. 

‘Taylorism’ established the ultra-creepy notion that an unobserved worker was an inefficient one. 

The ten-minute screenshots which big corps use these days ring familiar to the time-tracking ‘games’ employed in the era of Taylorism, when  stopwatch was used to foster competition. Maybe we have never needed to watch the clock; it’s been watching us this whole time. 

But, what’s also true is that moments of creative resistance are just as commonplace today as they have been in history. If you’re a remote worker you’ll have likely come across the ‘mouse jiggler’. There’s plenty of TikTokkers posting instructional videos on how this device — which you can buy online — ‘hacks’ the software monitoring system to make you look currently active. The most popular mouse is named ‘liberty’. 

Or maybe you fancy commuting to the office without the fear of facial recognition tracking your progress (a girl can only dream!). Well, Milanese designer, Rachele Didero, has recently dropped a line of patterned sweaters that confounds this technology, leading it to categorise you instead as a dog, zebra, or giraffe. 

So there’s hope in knowing that office surveillance, though on the rise, won’t ever go unchallenged. 

For such is the way of the balanced universe: as soon as one relentless control freak is promoted to manager, an ingenious little rebel joins the company. 

It’s the law. 

Cover illustration by Lo Parkin

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