New figures out last week show that the pandemic has drastically increased the number of people working remotely: 35.9% of employees did some work at home in 2020, an increase of 9.4% compared with 2019. This large rise in remote working has, in many cases, taken place against a backdrop of substantially unequal power dynamics, where many workers have little say over which technologies managers force on them, and how they are affected.
Remote working is likely to remain a permanent feature of the UK work environment in one way or another. Recent polling shows that only 37% of people want a return to ‘normal life’ after the pandemic is over, and only 19% want to go back to the office five days a week. It’s easy to see why the move to remote working has been good for workers: removing the commute, allowing more time with family, and more flexibility.
But remote working also carries risks. The technologies which enable remote working also open employees up to increased surveillance and monitoring – for example, trackers that measure your keystrokes, or webcams that monitor whether or not you’re working. The drastic increase in remote working therefore opens the door for a similar increase in how much time your boss spends watching you.
Workplace surveillance has long been a feature of work, from workers being forced to live their lives according to the employer’s clock-time to Henry Ford’s use of secret police. The continuous growth of information technology in the workplace has extended both the scope and scale of this surveillance: for example, a major call centre company, Teleperformance, which employs 380,000 people, reportedly plans to use specialist webcams to watch staff working from home.
Crucially, these surveillance technologies don’t necessarily boost productivity – and their consequences for employees’ mental health can be enormous. When our office is in our living room, surveillance can extend into lives outside of work, contributing to a culture in which a person can never switch off. In one particularly egregious case, a worker at a tech firm in California was fired for turning off a tracking app installed on her phone when she wasn’t at work.
Rates of work-related anxiety, stress, and depression have been increasing rapidly in recent years, last year accounting for 51% of all work-related ill health cases and 55% of all working days lost due to work-related ill health. Beyond being socially and personally harmful, work-related mental health problems cost employers up to £45 billion a year. Putting workers under surveillance isn’t going to solve any of these problems. It will probably make them worse.
What happens in the so-called ‘gig-economy’—where hyper-exploitative companies breach human rights as a matter of routine—can be seen as a precursor to how technology will be used in the rest of the workforce. Surveillance could begin to divide people’s work time into ‘productive’ and ‘non-productive’ elements, which could be a precursor to cutting wages. Recently, the UK Supreme Court forced Uber to recognise their drivers as workers, ruling that they are at work from when they log into the app to when they switch it off. Uber is using its extensive data on its workers to argue that drivers are only working when completing a ride – meaning when they are generating money for the company, not while they wait for customers.
This is known as ‘the precision economy’, in which technology is increasingly used to intensely monitor, surveil, and control workers. It has enabled companies like Uber to compartmentalise their drivers’ time, and to only pay for the exact time they are undertaking ‘productive’ work. They won’t pay for the time in-between rides, rest breaks, maintenance, or filling up on fuel – so just as Uber’s drivers effectively subsidise the company through buying their own equipment (their cars), they are also being forced to subsidise the company in the form of unpaid time. Technology here is being used to control and discipline workers, rather than to make their work better or improve their working conditions, and it comes at a cost for the company, too: companies invest in mechanisms of control rather than in training, in automotive technologies, or in other things that might genuinely improve productivity.
Boosted worker and trade union rights would help meet this challenge. That might mean legislation stipulating that all employers must be transparent about monitoring and surveillance technology. Legislation could also establish clear data rights for workers, including a right to privacy. The Irish government, for example, has passed a right to disconnect law, which gives employees the right to disengage from work-related communications outside of their regular office hours, and mandates that companies negotiate with staff and agree rules around when they can be contacted for work purposes.
Through collective organising in trade unions, workers can help shape how technological change is implemented in their workplace. Journalists at the Telegraph organised through their NUJ workplace union and successfully resisted the use of technology which would monitor how much time they spent at their desks. Similarly, French employee works councils reached an agreement with the Renault group’s ‘charter on the correct use of data technology, electronic and digital resources’, which was endorsed by the company.
These victories in the workplace can then be translated into legal protection. In Germany, the Federal Constitutional Court and Federal Labour Court ruled in favour of the trade union position that any ‘secret’ monitoring without the consent of the worker constitutes an intrusion into a worker’s private life.
Kranzberg’s First Law states: ‘Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.’ The same can be said of remote working technologies – whether they are good or bad depends on how they are used which, in turn, depends on power relations within the workplace. Remote working could be a force for good, but this is not guaranteed.
Where workers have no power, employers can force the use of invasive surveillance technologies with little resistance. But in workplaces where workers do have collective power, such as in the form of trade unions, they have the ability to resist unpopular changes to the way they work, and ensure that they have a meaningful say over what technology is implemented and how it impacts them.