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Home-ing from work

  • 05 November 2020

I used to work in a small office where the junior employees were expected to be at their desks by 8:30 sharp every morning. On most mornings the owner-boss, who we nicknamed The Troll because he looked and treated his staff like the hungry bridge-guarder from the Norwegian fairy tale, would call the office at 8:35 to make sure everyone was in.

He had his longer-term staff spy on junior employees and surveillance software installed on our computers. He treated the place like his own personal fiefdom: he slept with some young employees, walked around the office fondling himself, telling racist, sexist and transphobic jokes. Most of us despised him, loathed the toxic culture and yet we were stuck there, unable to leave because we were dependent on the pitiful salary and struggling to find employment elsewhere.

The work was dull, but I often thought if I could just work from home, be spared the two hour daily commute and avoid having to see and deal with The Troll I could endure it until I managed to find something else. Seemingly, I wasn’t alone; while the particulars may differ, it turns out a lot of people resent this stuffy, 9-to-5 white collar ritual that passes for the norm these days.

The pandemic has forced businesses to facilitate working-from-home arrangements and research suggests that workers are happier, with three-quarters frustrated that it took a global health crisis for these changes to occur. But, tellingly, 77 per cent of Australian workers surveyed said they’re spending much more time co-ordinating with others over email, text or messaging platforms, while two-thirds are also spending more time reporting to clients and managers and 42 per cent are working longer hours.

Bosses give any number of reasons, often focused on some vaguely defined notion of productivity, why they do or don’t support remote working, but ultimately it comes down to a single, fundamental question: what is the ideal balance between reducing expenditure and surveilling workers? Workplace surveillance is about power, not performance — about enforcing compliance. Thus, unsurprisingly, in the first few months of the pandemic, some companies reported a 300 percent increase in sales of software that monitors employees working remotely — a digital panopticon writ large. No longer able to watch their staff’s computer screen over their shoulder or keep count the extra minutes they’re taking for lunch, bosses are increasingly using software that allows them to track