The future of work is here, ush¬≠ered in by a glob¬≠al pan¬≠dem¬≠ic. But is it turn¬≠ing employ¬≠ment into a Work¬≠ers‚Äô Par¬≠adise of work¬≠ing at home? Or more of a Big Broth¬≠er panopticon?
Dis¬≠turb¬≠ing increas¬≠es in use of dig¬≠i¬≠tal sur¬≠veil¬≠lance tech¬≠nolo¬≠gies by employ¬≠ers to mon¬≠i¬≠tor their remote work¬≠ers is rais¬≠ing alarm bells. With the num¬≠ber of remote work¬≠ers surg¬≠ing as a¬†result of the pan¬≠dem¬≠ic‚ÄĒ42% of U.S. work¬≠ers¬†are now doing their jobs from their kitchens, liv¬≠ing rooms and home offices‚ÄĒa num¬≠ber of employ¬≠ers have begun requir¬≠ing their work¬≠ers to down¬≠load spy¬≠ing soft¬≠ware to their lap¬≠tops and smart¬≠phones. The goal is for busi¬≠ness¬≠es to mon¬≠i¬≠tor what their remote employ¬≠ees do all day, and to track job per¬≠for¬≠mance and pro¬≠duc¬≠tiv¬≠i¬≠ty and reduce so-called¬†‚Äúcyber-slack¬≠ing.‚ÄĚ
Busi¬≠ness soft¬≠ware prod¬≠ucts¬†from Hub¬≠staff, which tracks a¬†worker‚Äôs mouse move¬≠ments, key¬≠board strokes, web¬≠pages vis¬≠it¬≠ed, email, file trans¬≠fers and appli¬≠ca¬≠tions used, are surg¬≠ing in sales. So are sales for TSheets, which work¬≠ers down¬≠load to their smart¬≠phones so that employ¬≠ers can track their loca¬≠tion. Anoth¬≠er prod¬≠uct, called¬†Time Doc¬≠tor, down¬≠loads videos of employ¬≠ees‚Äô screens and uses a¬†com¬≠put¬≠er‚Äôs web¬≠cam, which can take a¬†pic¬≠ture of the employ¬≠ee every¬†10¬†min¬≠utes. As one work¬≠er who was sub¬≠ject¬≠ed to Time Doc¬≠tor¬†told¬†NPR,¬†‚ÄúIf you‚Äôre idle for a¬†few min¬≠utes, if you go to the bath¬≠room or to the kitchen, a¬†pop-up comes up and says,¬†‚ÄėYou have¬†60¬†sec¬≠onds to start work¬≠ing again or we‚Äôre going to pause your¬†time.‚Äô‚ÄĚ¬†
Anoth¬≠er sys¬≠tem, Inter¬≠Guard, can be¬†secret¬≠ly installed on work¬≠ers‚Äô com¬≠put¬≠ers. As the¬†Wash¬≠ing¬≠ton Post¬†notes, it¬†‚Äúcre¬≠ates a¬†minute-by-minute time¬≠line of every app and web¬≠site they view, cat¬≠e¬≠go¬≠riz¬≠ing each as¬†‚Äėpro¬≠duc¬≠tive‚Äô or¬†‚Äėunpro¬≠duc¬≠tive‚Äô and rank¬≠ing work¬≠ers by their¬†‚Äėpro¬≠duc¬≠tiv¬≠i¬≠ty score.‚Äô‚ÄĚ Oth¬≠er employ¬≠ers are using a¬†low¬≠er tech approach, requir¬≠ing work¬≠ers to stay on a¬†tele¬≠con¬≠fer¬≠ence like Zoom all day so they can be con¬≠tin¬≠u¬≠al¬≠ly¬†watched.
Since the Covid-19¬†out¬≠break, one sur¬≠veil¬≠lance com¬≠pa¬≠ny, Aware¬≠ness Tech¬≠nolo¬≠gies, Inc., says it has seen its sales triple. Exec¬≠u¬≠tives at¬†Hub¬≠staff¬†and¬†Tera¬≠mind¬†also say demand for their com¬≠pa¬≠nies‚Äô mon¬≠i¬≠tor¬≠ing prod¬≠ucts have tripled. One web¬≠site show¬≠ing¬†‚ÄúEmploy¬≠ee Mon¬≠i¬≠tor¬≠ing Soft¬≠ware in the USA‚ÄĚ lists near¬≠ly¬†70¬†com¬≠pa¬≠nies with prod¬≠ucts for¬†sale.
Out¬≠dat¬≠ed laws keep it legal
Online sur¬≠veil¬≠lance of employ¬≠ees may seem inva¬≠sive and creepy, but it is a¬†legal prac¬≠tice in the Unit¬≠ed States. Indi¬≠vid¬≠ual state laws vary over whether com¬≠pa¬≠nies must inform work¬≠ers that they‚Äôre using track¬≠ing soft¬≠ware, but in real¬≠i¬≠ty¬†‚Äúwhen you‚Äôre on your office com¬≠put¬≠er, you have no pri¬≠va¬≠cy at all,‚ÄĚ Lewis Malt¬≠by, pres¬≠i¬≠dent of the Nation¬≠al Workrights Insti¬≠tute,¬†told¬†CNBC.¬†‚ÄúAny¬≠thing and every¬≠thing you do is prob¬≠a¬≠bly mon¬≠i¬≠tored by your¬†boss.‚ÄĚ
Cur¬≠rent laws are vast¬≠ly out¬≠dat¬≠ed, as they are based on the Elec¬≠tron¬≠ic Com¬≠mu¬≠ni¬≠ca¬≠tions Pri¬≠va¬≠cy Act of 1986, when the pri¬≠ma¬≠ry form of elec¬≠tron¬≠ic com¬≠mu¬≠ni¬≠ca¬≠tion was the tele¬≠phone. That was a dis¬≠tant time when desk¬≠top com¬≠put¬≠ers were first becom¬≠ing pop¬≠u¬≠lar, and smart phones were not yet a glint in Steve Jobs‚Äô eye.
And now, in response to the coro¬≠n¬≠avirus out¬≠break, com¬≠pa¬≠nies such as Price¬≠wa¬≠ter¬≠house¬≠C¬≠oop¬≠ers (PwC) and Sales¬≠force¬†have devel¬≠oped intru¬≠sive appli¬≠ca¬≠tions¬†that enable com¬≠pa¬≠nies to con¬≠tin¬≠u¬≠ous¬≠ly track the health sta¬≠tus of their employ¬≠ees. Often they include a¬†sys¬≠tem for track¬≠ing con¬≠tacts between employ¬≠ees with¬≠in an office, and a¬†mobile app for col¬≠lect¬≠ing infor¬≠ma¬≠tion about their health sta¬≠tus. A¬†num¬≠ber of large U.S. employ¬≠ers, includ¬≠ing¬†Ama¬≠zon,¬†Wal¬≠mart, Home Depot and Star¬≠bucks, are tak¬≠ing the tem¬≠per¬≠a¬≠tures of their employ¬≠ees before they are allowed to work. Cer¬≠tain¬≠ly, employ¬≠ers have a¬†legit¬≠i¬≠mate need to col¬≠lect the nec¬≠es¬≠sary data to safe¬≠guard their work¬≠places, espe¬≠cial¬≠ly in response to a¬†pan¬≠dem¬≠ic. But what is the appro¬≠pri¬≠ate lev¬≠el of¬†‚Äúhealth intru¬≠sion‚ÄĚ? How vol¬≠un¬≠tary is the par¬≠tic¬≠i¬≠pa¬≠tion of work¬≠ers, and who gets to¬†decide?¬†
The real¬≠i¬≠ty of this con¬≠stant Big Broth¬≠er dig¬≠i¬≠tal spy¬≠ing in people‚Äôs homes is that dozens of remote work¬≠ers are start¬≠ing to com¬≠plain that¬†they feel burned out¬†by this pres¬≠sure. A¬†recent Fish¬≠bowl sur¬≠vey of major com¬≠pa¬≠nies‚Äô employ¬≠ees found that¬†three-quar¬≠ters of those polled¬†were opposed to using an app or device that allows their com¬≠pa¬≠ny to trace their con¬≠tacts with col¬≠leagues. Yet many fear they will be brand¬≠ed as trou¬≠ble¬≠mak¬≠ers or lose their jobs if they speak out. And since remote work¬≠ers hard¬≠ly see each oth¬≠er‚ÄĒand increas¬≠ing¬≠ly may not even know many of their cowork¬≠ers‚ÄĒthese fac¬≠tors will make labor orga¬≠niz¬≠ing and col¬≠lec¬≠tive work¬≠er empow¬≠er¬≠ment increas¬≠ing¬≠ly¬†challenging.
U.S. labor unions have been slow to advo¬≠cate for updat¬≠ing these out¬≠dat¬≠ed laws. One union, the Unit¬≠ed Elec¬≠tri¬≠cal, Radio, and Machine Work¬≠ers of Amer¬≠i¬≠ca, has been work¬≠ing to blunt the worst of the abus¬≠es. Labor-friend¬≠ly media have been miss¬≠ing this sto¬≠ry as well. Not only should unions advo¬≠cate to update the laws and lim¬≠it dig¬≠i¬≠tal spy¬≠ing, but why not also demand that home-based work¬≠ers be com¬≠pen¬≠sat¬≠ed by employ¬≠ers for use of their house, util¬≠i¬≠ties and the inter¬≠net? And that the employ¬≠er remains respon¬≠si¬≠ble to pro¬≠vide equip¬≠ment and a safe work¬≠place, even in the home?
Remote work¬≠force growth‚ÄĒthe new¬†normal?
As the num¬≠ber of remote work¬≠ers ris¬≠es, con¬≠cerns are grow¬≠ing among labor advo¬≠cates that this is quick¬≠ly becom¬≠ing the¬†‚Äúnew nor¬≠mal.‚ÄĚ One sur¬≠vey found that¬†74% of com¬≠pa¬≠nies¬†intend to keep some pro¬≠por¬≠tion of their work¬≠force on a¬†per¬≠ma¬≠nent remote sta¬≠tus, with near¬≠ly a¬†quar¬≠ter of respon¬≠dents say¬≠ing they will move at least¬†20% of their on-site employ¬≠ees to per¬≠ma¬≠nent remote sta¬≠tus. Google, whose par¬≠ent com¬≠pa¬≠ny is Alpha¬≠bet, recent¬≠ly announced it will keep its¬†200,000¬†full-time and con¬≠tract employ¬≠ees¬†home until at least July¬†2021, and Mark Zucker¬≠berg pre¬≠dicts half of Face¬≠book employ¬≠ees will work from home over the next decade. HUB Inter¬≠na¬≠tion¬≠al, a¬†glob¬≠al insur¬≠ance bro¬≠ker¬≠age,¬†has shift¬≠ed¬†90% of its¬†12,000-plus employ¬≠ees¬†to remote sta¬≠tus. Teleper¬≠for¬≠mance, the world‚Äôs largest call-cen¬≠ter com¬≠pa¬≠ny, esti¬≠mates that near¬≠ly¬†155,000¬†of its employ¬≠ees‚ÄĒalmost half its glob¬≠al work¬≠force‚ÄĒwill not return to a¬†phys¬≠i¬≠cal work¬≠site. A¬†sur¬≠vey of firms bythe¬†Sur¬≠vey of Busi¬≠ness Uncer¬≠tain¬≠ty¬†found that the share of work¬≠ing days spent at home is expect¬≠ed to increase four¬≠fold from a¬†pre-Covid-19¬†lev¬≠el of¬†5¬†per¬≠cent to¬†20%. Post-pan¬≠dem¬≠ic, many employ¬≠ees will work from home one to three days a¬†week, and come into the office the rest of the¬†time.
But not all at-home work¬≠ers are cre¬≠at¬≠ed equal. Stan¬≠ford econ¬≠o¬≠mist Nicholas Bloom¬†says¬†‚ÄúThis is gen¬≠er¬≠at¬≠ing a¬†time bomb for inequal¬≠i¬≠ty.‚ÄĚ More edu¬≠cat¬≠ed, high¬≠er-earn¬≠ing employ¬≠ees are far more like¬≠ly to work from home, con¬≠tin¬≠u¬≠ing to get paid and advance their careers. But many oth¬≠ers are unable to work from home, often because they lack suit¬≠able space or fast, afford¬≠able inter¬≠net con¬≠nec¬≠tions, and they are being left behind.¬†‚ÄúThey face bleak prospects if their skills and work expe¬≠ri¬≠ence erode dur¬≠ing an extend¬≠ed shut¬≠down and beyond,‚ÄĚ says¬†Bloom.
The future of work has become more uncer¬≠tain than ever. In this¬†‚Äúbrave new world,‚ÄĚ labor unions and advo¬≠cates must ensure that the pan¬≠dem¬≠ic is not mis¬≠used by busi¬≠ness¬≠es as an excuse to wors¬≠en con¬≠di¬≠tions for employ¬≠ees who work out of the office. It is easy to imag¬≠ine how the lines between¬†‚Äėremote‚Äô work and¬†‚Äėplat¬≠form‚Äô work could blur, lead¬≠ing to more¬†‚ÄėUber¬≠iza¬≠tion‚Äô as work devolves into¬†‚Äėinde¬≠pen¬≠dent‚Äô con¬≠tracts, bogus self-employ¬≠ment and¬†‚Äėpay-by-project‚Äô arrange¬≠ments that can be eas¬≠i¬≠ly out¬≠sourced to remote (and low¬≠er cost)¬†destinations.
Work¬≠er advo¬≠cates must push for a strong and mod¬≠ern legal data pro¬≠tec¬≠tion frame¬≠work. And that should include an effec¬≠tive enforce¬≠ment sys¬≠tem against pri¬≠va¬≠cy abuse that cre¬≠ates a dis¬≠in¬≠cen¬≠tive against ille¬≠gal spy¬≠ing behav¬≠ior. Remote work should not become a down¬≠ward slide toward a Big Broth¬≠er panop¬≠ti¬≠con that pen¬≠e¬≠trates into soci¬≠ety ever more deeply, includ¬≠ing into our homes.
This blog originally appeared at In These Times on September 23, 2020. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Steven Hill is the author of Raw Deal: How the ‚ÄúUber Econ¬≠o¬≠my‚ÄĚ and Run¬≠away Cap¬≠i¬≠tal¬≠ism Are Screw¬≠ing Amer¬≠i¬≠can Work¬≠ers and The Start¬≠up Illu¬≠sion: How the Inter¬≠net Econ¬≠o¬≠my Threat¬≠ens Our Wel¬≠fare.