The Dark Side of ‘Work from Home’

It’s 4:30 on a Thursday afternoon. You’re sitting at your IKEA desk and, given the low workload today, you figure why not pour a glass of wine to get you through the last hours. Then you sit back down at your laptop. Your tasks get completed, as your nails get painted and your hair gets plaited. Even your dog got a grooming. It reaches 6pm and you log off for the evening.

But wait – although your employer, Toby, is 397 miles away in his Edinburgh flat, he knew that you were brushing your hair, and brushing the dog, and brushing dog hair off the sofa. In this dystopian reality, Toby has the power and legal authorisation to monitor you, cloaked in the disguise of assessing your productivity. Don’t be fooled, Big Brother is watching you. Quite possibly your entire senior management is watching you. Maybe while tossing popcorn up and catching it in their mouths. Workplace surveillance software such as Slack and Hubstaff create a digital panopticon; and you never know when you’re being spied on. Welcome to the much lauded ‘Work from Home’ already abbreviated to a trendy #WFH. This is where privacy and trust become relics of the past.

Our post-pandemic homes, supposed safe places, have been invaded by what has become aptly known as ‘tattleware’. Through various webcam technologies and downloaded softwares, employers can extend their beady-eyed gaze through the digital labyrinth right to your kitchen table. These softwares are meant to replicate the office environment, but I don’t remember a work culture where it was socially acceptable for your boss to observe your every move from half a metre away.

Quite possibly your entire senior management is watching you.

The award for most intense (and alarming) form of surveillance has to go to Time Doctor. Invented in 2012, the software takes recordings of employees’ screens whilst they work. Scrolling through your ex’s insta? Buying a last-minute gift on Amazon? Googling ‘How to make home-made sanitiser?’ Time Doctor will know – and thus so will your employer. The technology can also take a picture via webcam every ten minutes, to check the employee is at their computer. If there is no activity on your laptop for a few minutes, a menacing message will appear: ‘YOU HAVE 60 SECONDS TO START WORKING’. If you do not ‘start working’, your time is paused, and you will stop being paid.

In a very close second place is the monitoring software, Sneek. Every couple of minutes it takes a photo of the unsuspecting employee, then pastes each headshot into a waiting room. Anyone can click on someone’s picture to automatically bring them into a video call. And if you catch a colleague doing something they shouldn’t be, the image can be sent to your employer via Slack. Snitching just got a cyber-makeover.

Counter-technology, or ‘apps of insubordination’, have started to pop up in response. ‘I’ve known people at other companies who’ve adjusted their laptop settings so that they can be away from their computer,’ an employee at a publishing company told me. ‘One friend rigged it particularly well to show him as online when he’s not. He switches it on, then goes down to the pub’. The crucial question is this: are spying softwares unfairly watching good people, or are they necessary tools to rein in horrible slackers? The tech assumes we’re all up to no good, all the time. That we need monitoring, or the job won’t get done. But the truth is, most of us only want to rebel once we feel unfairly infringed upon. 

I decided to put myself in the employer’s shoes. I closed my eyes and envisioned the perfect martinet. The slave-driver of good staff. The paranoid pay-cheque writer. Could I spy on my personnel without them knowing?

I asked the online help assistant of a software called Interguard. Aria (debatably a bot), provided this response to my question of whether I could install their software without the knowledge of my employees: the ‘remote deployment tool’ could ‘silently and remotely deploy the software to multiple devices’ across my network. The more Aria and I chatted, the more I was freaked out by the imperceptible black puzzle of digital surveillance.

Employers justify their new life as company super-spies with a supposed desire to maximise productivity. However, it has been reported that productivity levels did not lessen with the switch to remote work last year. Some studies have found that employees actually tend to be more productive and work longer hours when they are working from home. Data taken from 30,000 users of the tattleware software Prodoscore, found there was an 57% increase in email usage and an extraordinary 230% increase in time spent on phone calls.

the ‘remote deployment tool’ could ‘silently and remotely deploy the software to multiple devices’ across my network.

‘It’s important for people’s sense of autonomy, dignity, and mental health, that the home remains a private space and we don’t go down the route of this invasive, constant monitoring,’ Silkie Carlo told the Guardian. Carlo is the director of the civil rights campaign organisation, Big Brother Watch, which tackles issues regarding the rise of the surveillance state, freedom and privacy online. Close monitoring of employees through tattleware tech can reflect the insecurity of mid-level management.

‘There was zero trust and zero respect…I felt unworthy of the job,’ an ex-employee of a corporate market research company told me. She started her job during lockdown, so had always worked exclusively from home. ‘If I didn’t do anything on my computer for 4 minutes and my little dot turned yellow, I would receive a message immediately asking, “What are you working on?” It made me want to do stuff less; the micromanagement made me feel really undervalued for my skill set.’ She quit the job after just five months.

Intense levels of control and mistrust breeds more mistrust, not obedience, as many tyrant bosses like to believe. The publishing employee told me she’d once gone to work in her boyfriend’s empty office after a nasty row with housemates made their home unbearable. Seeing she was in a different room, management questioned why her background had changed during a video call. ‘They told me that the government advice is to work from home, so I needed to go home.’ She now uses a background filter on her calls.

Intense levels of control and mistrust breeds more mistrust, not obedience, as many tyrant bosses like to believe.

Productivity software not only invades an employee’s privacy but also creates an impetus to work harder and for longer hours: a practice known as ‘presenteeism’. The WHO have reported that the number of hours worked during the lockdown increased by around 10%. The significance of this cannot be understated. In 2016, 745,000 people died from a stroke or heart disease related to working long hours, according to a BBC article. With boundaries between work and home life becoming blurred during lockdown, overwork culture is becoming increasingly normalised. Unlike some European countries such as France, Italy and Spain, the UK has not yet implemented a ‘right to disconnect’. This law would mean that you cannot be punished for not attending to work matters outside of normal office hours. This helps to reduce pressure to give up your sacred free time to continue working. Remote work also means that you have to be really ill before you can take a day off. That bout of flu no longer serves as a valid excuse.

‘Working from Home’ has brought benefits, for both employees and employers. No more loathsome commutes. Employers can easily search for candidates globally. Women have the ability to rejoin the work force whilst balancing domestic responsibilities and childcare. However, as the campaign group Privacy International writes, surveillance softwares have ‘left many incredibly stressed, seeing years of work devalued, unappreciated and dehumanised’.

Employers are understandably concerned about productivity levels; they’re unable to see behind the curtain of the remote work theatre, but a little trust of your performers could go a long way. Meanwhile, employees, you better learn to live with that tell-tale draft of someone, somewhere, breathing down your neck. 

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