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The Tyranny of the Pandemic Office

Why are workers being called back for nonessential work in the middle of a pandemic? Because their bosses can get away with it.

The worst manager I ever had could slip frictionlessly between enthusiasm and furor, high fives and reprimands. He liked to stalk through the restaurant where we worked, his shiny shoes and shiny hair possessed of the same stiff, lacquered sheen. In crossing his path, you risked falling victim to his belittlement, his anger. If he saw you on your phone, he would take it from you. If your dress code–mandated white sneakers weren’t the “right” kind, you’d be required to buy another pair. If you made a mistake, like misfiring an order, he would scream at you in front of the kitchen and assign you unappealing tasks. I cleaned thousands of knives and spoons that summer.

He was an “employer” in the sense that the political philosopher, Elizabeth Anderson, means “employer.” Those who run private workplaces, Anderson writes, “impose a far more minute, exacting, and sweeping regulation of employees than democratic states do in any domain outside of prisons and the military.”

I read Anderson’s book Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk About It) at the beginning of the pandemic. Over the last few months, I kept returning to it as the physical workplace, the book’s primary topic of interest, mutated and then, for many white-collar workers, effectively disappeared. (By the first week of April, an estimated 31 percent of office workers had switched to working from home.)

Private Government, which is adapted from two lectures Anderson gave in 2015, discusses the ways in which modern American workplaces resemble little autocratic dictatorships. Authority in these workplaces “is sweeping, arbitrary, and unaccountable—not subject to notice, process, or appeal.” These workplaces, she explains, basically function as private governments. The people who are ruled don’t have a say in how they are ruled; they are simply required to follow orders, which are devised unilaterally and handed down from the top. This is, in part, what separates corporations from public, democratic governments. Voters have a voice—however small and highly contingent that voice may be—whereas most workers have absolutely no voice at all.

In essence, Anderson’s book makes the argument that workplaces are sites of complete control. “The lowest-ranked may have their bodily movements and speech regulated for most of the day,” she writes. “Everyone lives under surveillance, to ensure that they are complying with orders.” Workers have little power to fight back against demands that can be oppressive or arbitrary. Is it any wonder, then, that as the pandemic stretches on, many bosses are hoping to get workers back in the office as soon as possible?

“When you’re trying to create a new project, you want people around that water cooler. You want that sense of urgency,” Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen told CNBC in August. “I feel like productivity is impacted a little bit in that.” In a note to employees, senior executives at the Jefferies Financial Group wrote: “We all miss each other,” and “at the end of the day, we all know we are more effective in person than on Zoom.”

Both of these reflections begin with a chummy softener before pivoting, hard and fast, to business concerns. Reading them is like feeling a hand go from patting you on the shoulder to pushing you down into a desk chair. Camaraderie is reduced to a professional function, a fuel for productivity and effectiveness. By couching their desire for a return to in-person work in the language of social benefit for workers, executives sugarcoat their fundamental motivators: unease about output, loss, and the bottom line.

And many bosses are acting on those concerns. By April 2020, 26 percent of newly remote businesses surveyed by the law firm Blank Rome had fully developed a return-to-work strategy, and 56 percent had started to develop one. In August (months before a vaccine was approved), more than two-thirds of offices had either reopened or had never closed in the first place. The majority imperative has always been to get workers back into the workplace at the earliest opportunity. Profit over people, these businesses signal. Productivity over people.

This doesn’t mean there aren’t genuinely good justifications for favoring a return to the office, Anderson reminded me when we spoke on a cold December morning. Collaboration and spontaneity, which may naturally breed from physical interaction, can feel stilted over Zoom. Mentoring young employees and acclimating them to life at the company—so they can, as Anderson put it, pick up on “the quality of relationships and what kinds of jokes are acceptable”—is much easier done in person. For some, the office can be a place of sociability, a happy medium between those closest to us and the short-lived interactions we have with strangers. “There’s a kind of synergy you get with face-to-face communication that you don’t get if you’re all on Zoom,” she said.

Hypothetically, these are all good explanations for why managers could want employees back in the physical workplace. But then, there are also the bad reasons.

The bad reasons that employers want workers back in the office, Anderson believes, revolve around a desire for control. This thirst for power can manifest in sinister ways, turning the workplace into a site of fear. Certain managers physically intimidate their employees, cornering them during coffee breaks. Some bosses use their proximity to sexually harass, assault, or aggressively surveil their workers. Anderson told me this kind of power, though translatable to a virtual context, is most potent at the face-to-face level, raising the possibility that a remote, delocalized workforce has more autonomy outside the frame of a Zoom meeting than in a physical office space.

Other managers simply want their employees back in the office so they can keep an eye on their work ethic. “There are some managers who just think that the job won’t be done unless they exercise control,” she said. “They want the workers to be there because they don’t trust them. They think they’re going to slack off. They’re micromanagers.” For bosses, oversight is an assurance of productivity, logically making the physical workplace—where managers can keep a constant, watchful eye over employees—the venue of greatest worker output. Ultimately, in advocating for a return to the office as soon as possible, white-collar bosses hint at what workers have known all along: “Managing” is often just a refurbished word for “monitoring.”

In theory, working remotely should free workers from the burden of oppressive oversight: They no longer have to deal with a manager tapping them on the shoulder and reminding them to stay on task. And yet, in reality, bosses are adapting to retain the supervisory control they lost when operations went off-site. As my colleague Nick Martin reported in May, the worker surveillance matrix is adapting terrifyingly well to the virtual moment. “Overzealous managers demand to see each and every physical and digital move their employees make,” he wrote. Some workers have been asked to install workplace software on their personal laptops, causing them to fear that their managers are keeping tabs on their keystrokes and the websites they visit. In March, Business Insider reported that, within a few weeks of large-scale remote work, Sneek, a monitoring service that takes photographs of workers every few minutes through their webcam, had significantly grown its user base.

In perhaps a more horrifying move, some managers are performing their own surveillance themselves. Alison Green, founder of the workplace advice website Ask a Manager, told the Los Angeles Times that she had heard from multiple workers who were asked to engage in daylong video conference calls with their managers. In some cases, the purported justification—similarly to certain executives’ justifications for getting people back into the office as swiftly as possible—is premised on mutual benefit. “In some cases, they’re told it’s so they can all talk throughout the day if questions come up,” Green said, “but in others, there’s no pretense that it’s for anything other than monitoring people to ensure they’re working.”

Under the gaze of these employers, the home itself has become a venue of oversight; workers may feel they have to take down posters from their walls or tidy up their home office—or the de facto office of a living room, kitchen, or couch—in preparation for a work call, examples that Anderson considers constraints on employee freedom. These functions of oversight are similar to the ways in which employees are policed in the workspace. In the office, they can, for example, be disciplined for not wearing the correct type of shoe or for the political bumper sticker they put on their car. High levels of virtual surveillance simply recreate the oppressive, in-person oversight Anderson describes in Private Government. Employees who, in a post-pandemic world, will continue to work permanently from home, will have to acclimatize to digitized modes of employer observance and control. It seems that, regardless of where workers are, managers will continue to monitor and discipline them. For some, the dictatorship has simply gone virtual.

But for others, whose managers aren’t as strident in their surveillance efforts, this moment raises questions about whether the delocalization of the dictatorship has proven that constant monitoring is ineffective as a tool to ensure productivity. Since the start of the pandemic, employees have experienced the same level of productivity or an increased level of productivity compared to when they were in the office. If managers want that trend to continue in a post-pandemic world, they should stop scrutinizing their employees so fervently. “If you actually read the literature that comes out of management studies, we know that workers who are micromanaged have low morale, they have low motivation,” Anderson told me. “If the boss doesn’t cut you any slack, then you’re just going to work to rule,” meaning employees only do the minimum required of them. This hurts professional relationships and slows down efficiency—the very factor managers are so concerned with increasing. “Reciprocity is a very powerful motive,” she explained. “The people who want to keep a tight grip, not only are they oppressing their workers, but they’re probably not even doing a good job.”

Though only a quarter of white-collar workers eventually want to return to the physical workplace full-time, the majority do want to go back in some capacity when it’s safe to do so. For many, working from home is untenable. Balancing their job, childcare, elderly care, housework (which is often gendered), and a variety of other factors all in the same space is overwhelming. Just as there are potentially good reasons managers want a return to the physical workplace, there are a whole host of good reasons employees want to return to the office.

But when we do make our way back to our office desks, it seems obvious that working conditions need to change. Restructuring the post-pandemic workplace should include a complete reassessment of employee oversight—in all manner of jobs, from the office to the warehouse to the boundless geographies of gig employment. Its significant mitigation (if not complete overhaul) will not only make workers happier and more secure in their environments, it will increase the productivity levels that managers believe justify invasive surveillance practices.

With a reduction in oversight, employees will have access to an autonomy so often denied them in workplaces. Tasks stretched out to avoid management complaints about not working may be dispatched more efficiently, leaving workers more time to do what they will—and perhaps more time to organize for long-standing labor demands, such as shorter working hours. In her book The Problem With Work, Kathi Weeks discusses the relationship between the demand for shorter hours and “the capacity to represent and recreate oneself and one’s relationships, the freedom to design, within obvious bounds, our own lives.” Free time lends us “the possibility of gaining a measure of separation or detachment from capitalist control, imposed norms of gender and sexuality, and traditional standards of family form and roles.” Time of one’s own grants us not only freedom from the toil of work but also freedom to refashion the fabric of our lives outside of employment.

The pandemic has forced us to adapt to new working conditions and altered workplaces. Thinkers like Anderson and Weeks invite us to imagine a world in which we exert more control over those conditions and workplaces. They encourage us to politicize the very nature of work, to organize and agitate. Imagine going through your workday without a manager scrutinizing every move, every task. Imagine what we could do.