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May 6, 2021

Surveillance and Micromanagement – a Tale From the Frontline

Jaye O'Farrell-Stevens


©© GettyImages/MediaProduction

As parts of the world begin to emerge from the shadow of the pandemic, many employees are celebrating the new liberties that remote working has delivered. Whether that's the opportunity to manage their hours with more autonomy, or the simple relief of making a second cup of tea without worrying that their colleagues are judging them. It's been a revelation.

Of course, the extent of such revelations will depend on the culture of the company you work at. And how seriously it takes its duty of care. If it's a fintech employer with a sensory deprivation tank to help get the creative juices flowing while providing free deconstructed salad lunches, you may even be a bit disappointed with these "new" freedoms.

If, however, you work in a call center, you will be thankful for any reprieve that remote working has brought. I know: I worked in one.

Surveillance Big Brother Style

I'm not surprised, therefore, to read that some "remote telecommunication companies" are finding ways to wrestle back some of that new-found humanity. The humanity unwillingly granted during the pandemic, wrestled back by way of surveillance at home.

This comes in the form of a webcam that monitors employee's activities at their desk and reports them to their supervisor when it detects an infraction. A double whammy of surveillance and micromanagement. All so that the supervisor can deliver some "re-education."

I have first-hand experience of this battle – between companies that would really prefer it if you were a robot, and you, a person with a person's basic human needs and feelings.

After university, like so many young adults, I needed a job and found one at a local call center. Naïve, and full of hope, I started this job thinking it would mostly be fun. Hanging out with people my age, while taking a few calls.

Bathroom Routines Under Surveillance

An immediate sign that I was wrong came on my first day. I was brought onto the main floor: 200 meters of computers, and people, all talking. The only division, a large circular desk, which could look out across the entire office. A surveillance hub called "Big Brother."

This desk was where the managers sat. From there, they could see the screen of every employee, digitally and with their own eyes. They could also see the daily stats, who had done what and who had gone where.

We were given key cards, which were needed for every door, under the guise of security. In reality, it was for tracking our movements, be that for a bathroom visit or the lunch room.

As I settled into my new job, the realities of impossible daily targets became apparent. If I needed to make a note or complete a task when I ended a call, a manager would be alerted to this pause in productivity by Big Brother. They would appear and tap me on the shoulder, so I knew to take another call immediately.

Dehumanizing Micromanagement

All lunches were scheduled to make sure there were always enough people to take calls. Fair enough. But if someone was one minute late back, an always officious manager would burst into the break room demanding that that individual return immediately.

The location of our breaks was recorded, too, not just frequency and duration. It was not uncommon during a one-on-one with our manager to be provided with statistics on our bathroom routines. We would be questioned as to why we needed to visit another floor or why we had gone three times during a 10-hour shift.

As someone who had come from the relative freedoms of higher education, and just regular jobs, this line of questioning about such a private activity was shocking and deeply dehumanizing.

You're Fired!

Yet I was fortunate. I was a full-time employee, and this allowed me a certain amount of job security. The majority of employees, though, often lone parents or students, were on "zero-hour" contracts.

On more than one occasion, I can remember 20 or 30 staff being hired in anticipation of a new client or seasonal rush. Only for that need not to materialize. Then I'd watch as the senior manager appeared from their office and fired all our newly inducted co-workers on the spot. Everyone else would sit in stunned, uncomfortable silence as the deflated procession left.

Race to the Bottom

Companies like these are demonstrating that they do not want to hire humans: they want to automate every task. And it seems that, until they can replace you with an algorithm, they will seek to demean and dehumanize you. Reducing you to a number.

As an individual and team, you do not feel motivated, valued or trusted. Instead, you feel helpless and scared. You perform poorly, make mistakes, and think only of leaving. Leaving so you are no longer a number but a contributing member of society.

The aim of this game is to make every number as productive as possible while costing as little as possible. There is no room for sentiment or decency in this race to the bottom.

What is your experience of surveillance or micromanagement at work? How far is fair for companies to go? Let us know your thoughts in the Comments section, below.

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2 comments on “Surveillance and Micromanagement – a Tale From the Frontline”

  1. I work for a very large organisation and swipe cards used at every entry except toilets and people do work with honesty. Humans will go to the toilet when it is absolutely necessary and some don’t even get to the toilet because they get so busy and the urge of going to the toilet is gone. They are risking serious health problems but these very put themselves last putting sick and vulnerable first. That is the truth about every health professionals do.

    1. Thanks Neil for sharing your thoughts. It is sad that some people put their own health at risk either because of their workload. It makes me think of the advice on airplanes to put your own oxygen mask on first before being able to help others.

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