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How Covid-19 Is Changing the Workplace

With many forced to work from home since Covid-19, companies have increasingly used the opportunity to implement surveillance technologies and attack conditions – but workers have also found ways to fight back.

Covid-19 has killed off the office. Among white collar workers who have kept their jobs, remote working is now the norm, and it is inconceivable that most employees will be forced to return to office-based work five days a week.

This has been touted by employers not only as a necessary response to the pandemic, but also as a major perk. And, of course, it has advantages, such as time-savings from the commute. But remote working has been a cornerstone of contemporary business thinking for some years, and the push towards the ‘distributed workforce’ model has been seen not only in the vanguard tech industry, but throughout the white collar economy. Covid-19 hasn’t caused it; it is simply catalysing it.

We can understand the move towards remote working as part of a series of shifts in management approaches, each of which has a workplace-architectural manifestation. The most obvious such manifestation is the office cubicle. Although the cubicle is now seen as a relic of ‘dumb work,’ for some time it was touted as a tool of hyper-modernity.

Borrowing from cybernetics theory, early Silicon Valley businesses understood cubicle arrangements as the most efficient system for the free flow of ideas and a flat management structure: everyone was in a cubicle, even the bosses. By the end of the 1970s the cubicle had become a symbol of the new world of work typified by tech businesses such as Intel, where punchcards were out and casual wear was in.

The most recent shift was towards the open plan (and often hotdesking) arrangements that were the pre-Covid norm in white collar workplaces. Open plan is the workplace-architectural manifestation of the ‘agile’ methodology, in which interdisciplinary cooperation is foundational. But it is also necessarily connected with the voguish new language of tech businesses: employees aren’t employees but ‘people’ (imagine!); HR executives are ‘talent directors’; presenteeism is a dirty word; and, especially in a post-George Floyd world, firms are judged on their ‘commitments’ to ‘diversity.’

Management by Surveillance

For the most part this language is, of course, a sham; it has achieved ubiquity at precisely the same time that labour rights have reached their lowest ebb. Borrowing from Sean McDonald’s idea of ‘technology theatre’ (after Bruce Schneir’s ‘security theatre’), describing governments’ attempts to persuade populations that broadly useless new tech initiatives are solving problems they otherwise have no intention of addressing, we might refer to this tendency as empowerment theatre.

Empowerment theatre’s next act is embodied by the distributed workforce. But if remote working is the architectural-workplace manifestation, what is the new management approach with which it is associated?

One of the most common claims in the executive ‘thought leadership’ of the last decade is that the new world of work is ‘post-Taylorist.’ In particular, the suggestion is that employees must no longer be treated solely as units of labour to be ‘optimised’ and rationalised. Discipline is out; ‘trust’ is the new watchword, or so we’re told.

In reality, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Today, every employer has access to a staggering suite of surveillance tools allowing them to monitor their employees’ activities at an extraordinarily granular level. Keystroke loggers, browser monitoring, and even eye tracking are widely and affordably available, and they are becoming a standard condition of employment.

As remote working becomes the norm, these surveillance activities begin to spread outside the confines of the workplace and into our homes. This represents a step-change in the level of control enjoyed by employers and, as evidenced by the nascent industry offering ‘quantified self’ technologies as part of workplace benefit packages (now your employer can check how many steps you’ve walked each day, or what your diet is like), it is growing in both pace and scope.

Meanwhile, remote work will see the supercharging of demands to be ‘always on’; wage theft through unpaid overtime will skyrocket; and businesses will ‘reinvent’ basic rights in order to sell them back to employees as perks (see, for example, a LinkedIn post from April in which the ‘Chief People Officer’ of Just Eat announced with great fanfare that remote workers would now be entitled to a lunch break) or, worse, use ‘employee engagement’ tools to crush dissent (in the US, 30% of Fortune 500 companies now reportedly use employee surveys to identify demographics most likely to unionise).

Distributed workforces are easier to control in more traditional ways, too. If you no longer meet your coworkers IRL, and if your only channels of communication with each other are surveilled (whether potentially or actually) by your employer, how do you organise your workplace? How do you discuss grievances, share stories of mistreatment, or simply begin to agitate for better conditions? How would you bring your demands to a boss who you might never meet?

Slack Solidarity

Gig economy workers are already well acquainted with this problem. For Uber and Deliveroo contractors, the figure of the ‘boss’ doesn’t exist in any meaningful sense. Instead, their working lives are directed by an arcane algorithm, and they are unlikely to ever meet a human manager.

As a result, gig workers are one step ahead when it comes to organising in the new world of work, and it’s from them that white collar workers might take their cues. Gig workers around the world have developed their own strategies of contention, combining traditional organising tactics with visions of entirely new forms of worker solidarity.

Throughout 2019 Deliveroo workers engaged in a global wave of strikes, with riders attempting to shut down the service in Paris, London, and at least 15 other cities and regions across the UK. Meanwhile the growing ‘platform co-operative’ movement seeks to build worker-owned alternatives to the platform giants, combining cutting-edge technology with traditional co-op forms.

Innovative organising is also happening among casualised creative workers, and in ways that are perhaps surprising. During the summer of 2019 the small but growing YouTubers Union, made up of creators publishing on the streaming site, partnered with steelworkers union iG Metall, one of the oldest unions in Germany. Together they launched FairTube, a new organisation with demands including accountability from YouTube for creators whose work has been demonetised on the platform.

Crucially, FairTube is also pressuring Google to provide human contacts to creators who wish to dispute YouTube’s decisions. “Independent creators are scattered about, both geographically and demographically, and there are literally hundreds of thousands, if not millions of them,” Hank Green, one of the YouTubers involved in FairTube, said at the time. “It is important for independent creators to be able to have a unified conversation.”

FairTube recognises the challenges presented by the geographical dispersion of its members, and is combining the natural media savvy it has at its disposal with the century’s worth of experience in bread-and-butter organising brought to the table my iG Metall.

One of the most important characteristics of changing nature of employment is that it is defined by a drive for casualisation. The boom in remote work must be seen as part of the ongoing push among employers and policymakers to shift the foundations of Western economies away from the traditional employer-employee relationship and towards client-contractor arrangements. If we’re all working like freelancers, why shouldn’t we actually be freelancers?

The UK government has made great play of the benefits of self-employment, which is always and inevitably pitched as a great opportunity for personal freedom. For most self-employed people, of course, the reality is grim: TUC research published in 2018 found that half (a total of more than two million people) were earning less than minimum wage.

But self-employment is the most fundamental requirement of the economy proposed by employers and industry groups, in which businesses can dip in and out of a “liquid workforce,” engaging workers on freelance terms for short-term projects, unencumbered by even the most perfunctory legal obligation.

There is some pushback happening, even outside the gig economy. Freelancers, particularly in the media and creative industries, have long relied on whisper networks and backchannel information sharing: which companies always pay late; where has the best and worst conditions for ‘permalancers’; how to negotiate against egregious contract terms; and so on.

This is a form of mutual aid undertaken by workers who are well aware of their own precarity, and very few of whom have had meaningful support from the established unions working in their industries – who tend to focus on contracted employees. It is essentially palliative, but this kind of organising has real material benefits.

Gig workers’ algorithmically-dictated poverty, creative freelancers’ mistreatment by clients, and newly-remote white collar employees’ enforced surveillance are all intimately linked. We must understand them as symptoms of a decades-long assault on working people by capital, a battle that is reaching a new peak.

The ‘future of work’ touted by talking-head CEOs is a con; it’s a precursor to the utter destruction of workers’ most essential rights, and one that will ravage every industry. Whether within or outwith the traditional union structure, we must work urgently to connect our disparate struggles.