The Tyranny of the Pandemic Office
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 day-long 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 does 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.