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The Rise of the All-Seeing Boss

The role of the office may be changing forever, but don’t think your snooping employer isn't changing along with it.

Cabeca de Marmore/Shutterstock

I’m working from home while writing this. Maybe you’re working from home while reading this. For the workers in this country lucky enough to have jobs that don’t require a commute or in-person contact right now, the home office (or “office” created haphazardly in some corner of the home) has become a new normal. And while that time has been a chance for many to reconsider whether their physical presence is a crucial aspect of their job—the kind of flexibility long denied to workers who needed it pre-pandemic—it should also be an opportunity to think about what other shifts might be coming our way.

Outside of the pandemic, studies have shown that working from home increases productivity, worker happiness, and leisure time. From afar, the move to this model could be seen as a long-overdue silver lining of an otherwise cruel pandemic. But, because bosses remain bosses and the four-day workweek and days of worker-owned-and-led companies seem too far away, our jobs—even when done from home—will remain as coercive as ever. This includes an expansion of the worker surveillance state that already exists, as overzealous managers demand to see each and every physical and digital move their employers make. Adam Satariano, the European technology correspondent for The New York Times, laid out this new reality by installing the employee-monitoring software used by bosses on his computer and phone.

The software snapped screenshots of the websites he was on, recorded his physical location and productivity levels, and sent daily reports of all this information—as well as a screenshot of an online workout—to his manager, who agreed that the degree of surveillance was creepy. But according to Dave Nevogt, the CEO of the software company, this is not creepy because, “Workers know they are being watched, so it does not violate privacy.”

This tracks with what many companies are looking to do as American businesses prematurely reopen. The Washington Post reported that companies like the trade publication the High Plains Journal are requiring employees to create avatars for a digital office and to have their webcams on around the clock. The Wall Street Journal—which, at the beginning of the pandemic sent out a message to its own employees demanding they be constantly accessible—found that companies are contracting with app companies that promise to trace the movements of their employees and categorize them by their potential risk for contracting and spreading the coronavirus. But these micromanaging measures will almost assuredly remain once the pandemic has subsided. Jason Schultz, a professor of clinical law at New York University, stated the obvious for the Journal: “Employers don’t really have any incentives to remove surveillance once they install it.”

This degree of tracking already exists at companies like Amazon, which has long had tracking measures baked into its daily warehouse operations, going so far as to time bathroom breaks. These practices, which have remained in place during the pandemic, have only further magnified the company’s disdain for its workers. This, along with Amazon’s failure to adequately consider the health and safety of its factory workers, has led to sickouts and protests, a direct action rejecting the hustle-or-die culture the company has exploited to build its fortunes.

But the all-seeing company has been part of our work culture in other ways, too:  A 2018 study by Gartner found that of the 239 companies it surveyed, half were collecting data on their employees, either by combing the text of their texts and emails, tracking their meetings, or collecting biometric data. Some companies, like Aetna, even financially incentivized their employees to get a good night’s rest by encouraging them to use apps to track how long they slept at night. This has led some of these companies to pursue apps that would then track a worker’s health in relation to their productivity. Money is the end goal to all of these creepy wellness pursuits—either by squeezing more out of the workers or by lowering the company’s share of health care costs. Privacy is, all too conveniently, just a cost of doing business. 

As my colleague Osita Nwanevu wrote last month, the pandemic has been and will continue to be a tremendous test for organized labor. As workers navigate this new normal, whenever it arrives, we will have to be persistent and creative in how we reject calls for constant monitoring. A new era of direct action and worker collectivity will arise online, as it has in person; mass walkouts will be replaced with mass log-offs. There’s an opportunity in the pandemic to remake how we work, as Sarah Jaffe wrote here last week. But it goes both ways. Clearly bosses are seizing the moment, too.