I used to work in a small office where the junior employees were expected to be at their desks by 8:30 sharp every morning. On most mornings the owner-boss, who we nicknamed The Troll because he looked and treated his staff like the hungry bridge-guarder from the Norwegian fairy tale, would call the office at 8:35 to make sure everyone was in.
He had his longer-term staff spy on junior employees and surveillance software installed on our computers. He treated the place like his own personal fiefdom: he slept with some young employees, walked around the office fondling himself, telling racist, sexist and transphobic jokes. Most of us despised him, loathed the toxic culture and yet we were stuck there, unable to leave because we were dependent on the pitiful salary and struggling to find employment elsewhere.
The work was dull, but I often thought if I could just work from home, be spared the two hour daily commute and avoid having to see and deal with The Troll I could endure it until I managed to find something else. Seemingly, I wasn’t alone; while the particulars may differ, it turns out a lot of people resent this stuffy, 9-to-5 white collar ritual that passes for the norm these days.
The pandemic has forced businesses to facilitate working-from-home arrangements and research suggests that workers are happier, with three-quarters frustrated that it took a global health crisis for these changes to occur. But, tellingly, 77 per cent of Australian workers surveyed said they’re spending much more time co-ordinating with others over email, text or messaging platforms, while two-thirds are also spending more time reporting to clients and managers and 42 per cent are working longer hours.
Bosses give any number of reasons, often focused on some vaguely defined notion of productivity, why they do or don’t support remote working, but ultimately it comes down to a single, fundamental question: what is the ideal balance between reducing expenditure and surveilling workers? Workplace surveillance is about power, not performance — about enforcing compliance. Thus, unsurprisingly, in the first few months of the pandemic, some companies reported a 300 percent increase in sales of software that monitors employees working remotely — a digital panopticon writ large. No longer able to watch their staff’s computer screen over their shoulder or keep count the extra minutes they’re taking for lunch, bosses are increasingly using software that allows them to track their employees activity and monitor their time and movement.
This kind of surveillance quickly becomes inescapable and inevitably impinges on individual freedoms in ways that are often counterproductive; it undermines autonomy, which curtails creativity and discourages individual initiative.
In many ways these changes are the extension of a process that’s been underway for some time — the blurring of lines between work and non-work. It’s often expected, say, that employees have their work email on their phone — an artefact of work that accompanies you everywhere, constantly beeping and vibrating, reminding you that you’re never entirely free. Now, the dining table increasingly doubles as a desk and escaping work is no longer simply matter of leaving the office at 5:01pm. Work is no longer just what we do, it’s who we are.
The psychoanalyst Paul Verhaeghe argues that the West’s embrace of neoliberalism — the elevation of the market as the primary organisational structure of society — has led to qualitative changes in the citizens (or, consumers, has he thinks they’re more accurately described) who live under such a system. It’s not that work has simply grown in significance in people’s lives or altered their conception of self, it’s that it has arguably done so in a zero-sum way:
Not so long ago, our culture, and thus our identity, was determined by interaction between four key areas: politics, religion, the economy, and the arts, with politics and religion competing for dominance. These days, politicians are fodder for stand-up comedians; religion prompts associations with suicide bombers or sexual abuse; and everyone is an artist. The only thing that still counts is the economy, and here the neo-liberal economic narrative has taken over.
Politics, religion and the arts have, for the most part, been subsumed by the economy. This nihilistic image of society doesn’t reward virtue or original thinking; the salary men and women who ‘succeed’ are those that embody the values and ethos of the company that pays their wage — compliance trumps competence. If employers can get their workers to buy into their bullshit about being on a shared journey or whatever apocryphal greater-good message they’re selling, then they’re easier to exploit. Indeed, waged labourers end up willingly exploiting themselves.
COVID-19 has forced workplaces to implement changes, but these have been mostly superficial. What’s needed is a transformation of work, in which workers are paid more to do less, with the goal of moving towards a post-work society, one in which people don’t have to sell their labour to survive. Workplace relationships are about power, something I became only too aware of when The Troll decided to fire me: working from home wouldn’t have changed anything, it wouldn’t have afforded me any additional rights or protections. I would have been just as expendable. A transformation of work starts with radically changing this power dynamic. The challenge today is: how do you convince people to resist exploitation when they’re auto-exploiting?
(This was originally published in Eureka Street on 5th November, 2020.)