The boss is always watching.

Many of us know what it’s like to minimise our web browser while a manager walks past. Even if you’ve done all your work for the day, the temptation is there to relax for a moment, but you don’t want to be seen slacking off.

But what happens when all-seeing management goes too far?

Does it cultivate a culture of increased productivity and efficiency? Or will it create a burnt out, paranoid workforce?

If you’re considering stepping up your employee oversight while everyone’s working remotely, you might just want to pause and rethink.

Eyeballs everywhere

There’s loads of surveillance tech available today to the most control-hungry managers, and more is being developed each day. The world of ‘electronic performance monitoring’ is all-seeing, and all-powerful.

These systems can track how punctual you are - not just when you arrive at work, but at what time you sit at your desk, when you complete tasks, even how long you spend in the bathroom.

Your work emails can be scanned both automatically and snooped through by your bosses. Same goes for all the other workplace communication platforms - chat, project management, and so on. It’s also possible that voice recognition could be utilised in video calls and even physical meetings to pick up on unwanted discussion.

Data can be collected from a multitude of sources. Employees’ personal social media accounts can be monitored and searched. (See the story of the jobseeker who’s prospective employer printed out a 350-page analysis of every one of his tweets that contained bad language). Workers can be watched through the webcams in their work laptops, and software can be installed that periodically takes a screenshot to show they’re looking at work-related things. Locations can be tracked via smartphones, ID badges, wristbands, and even subdermal implants.

Some workplaces even collect biometric information like fingerprints, voiceprints, and iris scans when employees arrive at the office. And then there’s the personality testing, where companies seek to know as much as possible about the inner workings of our brains to ensure we’re a right fit for their corporate mission.


What are the consequences of collecting all this data?

The watched workplace

Surveillance is about more than just watching. It’s about using data to shape future behaviour - something anyone under the spotlight should rightly be concerned about.

In The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Shoshana Zuboff shows how information-collecting services extend their reach over time:

“From data source to a real-world monitor to an advisor to an active shepherd - from knowledge to influence to control."

This process happens over time, allowing people to get used to each stage without really noticing the change.

So what happens when this enters the workplace? The office is the perfect testing ground to get people to accept surveillance technology that’d otherwise be unacceptable in daily life.

Do you remember Google Glass? It was a set of glasses with an inbuilt camera and hands-free display in the lens, which you used by giving voice commands.

The concept is genuinely useful in certain cases - like for surgeons or engineers who need to keep their hands free. But it’s a privacy nightmare, and rightly faced huge criticism for the fact it enabled surreptitious video and audio recording by the user.

The public version of Glass was cancelled after the uproar, and now only exists as an ‘Enterprise Edition'. This was more than just a simple PR move, as Zuboff explains:

“This time there would be no frontal attack on public space. Instead, it was to be a tactical retreat to the workplace - the gold standard of habituation contexts, where invasive technologies are normalised among captive populations of employees.”

It led to productivity and efficiency increases in factories and other workplaces that embraced Glass, but at what cost? Zuboff thinks it’s a way to numb workers into compliance with invasive tech so they’ll accept it more in daily life.

The effects of the surveillance workplace

Dan Lyons, writing in Lab Rats: Why Modern Work Makes People Miserable, investigated the extent of these practices. He found that many companies didn’t really think about the effects of surveillance tech - they were just dazzled by the sales pitch and bought into it because it was new.

The effects were supposed to be increased productivity and decreased theft of company property. But the benefits were often outweighed by the negative effects on workers and their wellbeing:

“The damage is significant. Surveillance creates a toxic and demoralising environment, a digital sweatshop filled with stress, anxiety, depression, fatigue, anger, and even loss of identity."
"In a survey done at AT&T comparing monitored to unmonitored clerical workers performing similar tasks, monitored workers reported significantly more physical ailments, like stiff necks, sore wrists and numb fingers, as well as ‘racing or pounding heart’ and acid indigestion."

Long-term, is this kind of thing worth it?

In warehouses, call centres and high-turnover businesses, short-term boosts brought on by paranoia productivity will probably be embraced. Extracting the most out of workers until they quit has been a management tactic for these sorts of companies since the start of the industrial revolution. It’s probably not going to stop.

But for those that think on longer timescales, and want employees to stick around and be a positive face for their brand, they’re going to have to do things differently.

What people really want at work

The good news is that most of us get to choose where we work - and therefore avoid employers that turn their workplace into a panopticon.

If you had the choice, would you really want to work for a company that tracks your every move?

How much would they have to pay you to consider it? Would you be willing to give up your freedom, dignity and autonomy at work for a big pay packet?

According to Why We Work by psychology professor Barry Schwartz, people find satisfaction in their work in four ways:

  • Satisfied workers are engaged and challenged by their work, finding enjoyment in the tasks they have to do.
  • They enjoy a sense of autonomy and discretion, using that freedom to learn and develop their skills.
  • They enjoy the social engagement their job brings.
  • They find their work meaningful and think it makes a positive difference to the world.

And while it’s fairly uncommon to find people with all four of those attributes, each one contributes to a healthy company with a healthy balance sheet.

With various case studies spanning decades, Schwartz’s research found that re-orienting companies to employee-centric models of working consistently improves productivity and bottom-line performance. Essentially, the opposite of a surveillance culture.

He distils the idea powerfully:

“When you create an environment in which workers are respected, they want to be there and they want to work.”