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Covid Offices And The Religion Of Remote Work

By November 18, 2020 No Comments

Masks can prove liberating. The hidden face affords
security. Obnoxious authority breathes better, hiding in
comfort. Behind the material, confidence finds a home. While
tens of millions of jobs have been lost to the novel
coronavirus globally, security services, surveillance
officers and pen pushers are thriving, policing admissions
to facilities, churning through health and safety
declarations, and generally making a nuisance of
themselves.

Consider the state of Victoria in
Australia. The pandemic lockdown measures have softened but
have left a thick film of bureaucracy. For the overly eager
employee wishing to come into work to retrieve necessary
materials (the definition of what is necessary varies), the
task is irritating, even taxing. First, temperature check.
Second, checking in via smart phone with a health
declaration, a step discriminatory to those who have no
interest in having such devices. Third, clearance with
security to ensure the activation of relevant cards, and the
lending of necessary keys. Even through masks, those lining
up exude weariness, feeling saggy after months in
epidemiological confinement.

With the card activated
and ready to access the necessary buildings, it is time to
make way to the office, a space neglected since March.
Books, sulking at not having been consulted. Detritus of
memories on the wall: posters and pictures of travel to
places now inaccessible for reasons of cost or the pandemic.
Towers of paperwork left unattended, rendered irrelevant by
digitalisation. White board, uncleaned. A sense of woe
grips: the days for having such a space of monkish calm and
serene bliss are numbered.

During the pandemic,
employers have been chorusing about the benefits of making
people work from home. This has very much to do with them,
though other virtues are also celebrated: the conveniences
of work and home living; avoiding long, draining commutes;
spending more time with family. We are doing it for
you.

This has meant the invasion of the employee’s
home, and often not a voluntary one. Urban managerialism,
already identified in the 1970s by the English sociologist
Ray Pahl, has been hyper charged by a reallocation of
resources, the imposition of stresses upon the toilers. The
nature of parasitic capitalism, as Andy Merrifield puts it,
has come to the fore with aggression. “World cities,” he
reasons
, “are giant arenas where the most rabid
activity is the activity of rabidly extorting land rent, of
making land pay anyway it can; of dispatching all
non-parasitic activities to some other part of town (as
Engels recognized long ago), so as to help this rental
maximisation.” The almost operatic description
of Karl Marx in the first volume of Das Kapital comes
to mind: “Capital is dead labour which, vampire-like,
lives only by sucking living labour, and lives the more and
more it sucks.”

And sucking it does, making sure
that employees feed the beast by shouldering more expenses
while all the time being told they are fulfilling their
civic obligations and minding their good health. The fact
that doing this also means reducing the ongoing costs of the
business or entity, ensuring greater rental maximisation, is
seen as ancillary to the main show.

Prior to the
pandemic, the literature on attitudes to remote work was
already sounding like an urban manager’s small book of
maxims and clichés. Sophia Bernazzani of the video
conferencing company Owl Labs, writing
in December last year, announced how “new survey data
revealed that remote work is a major benefit for employees.
In fact, 34% of US workers would take a pay cut of up to 5%
in order to work remotely. And those who do work remotely
say they’re happy in their jobs 29% more than on-site
workers.”

With COVID-19 yet to make its telling
presence, Forbes was already diving into
reasons
why a remote workforce was an exhilarating boon
for business. As contributor Amar Hussain reasoned,
“Although there are challenges that come with hiring and
organizing a remote workforce, the reality is working with a
remote team might end up being one of the best decisions you
could make for your business.” More work is accomplished
by such remote teams (time otherwise wasted on commuting,
for instance, can be used); a “larger talent pool” can
be drawn from, given the absence of geographical
constraints; rental costs will be spared, meaning that US
companies would be saving $10,000 per employee per year.
Finally, a health dividend (because they care), would
accrue. “Remote work removes the need to commute and the
associated negative effects.”

Urban planning
academic Richard Shearmur sees
past
the glossy narrative of saving costs, tilting the
focus away from proselytisers of the religion of remote
work. “Whatever the personal and productivity impacts of
remote work, the savings of US$10,000 per year are the
employer’s. In effect, this represents an offloading of
costs onto employees – a new type of enclosure.” With
this comes loneliness, reduced productivity and
various inefficiencies.

Shearmur also sees a
historical parallel of expropriation. “In 16th-century
Britain, powerful landowners expropriated common land from
the communities, often for the purpose of running lucrative
sheep farms. Today, businesses like Shopify appear to be
expropriating their employee’s private living space.”
They do so by making employees purchase more work equipment
for the home (ergonomic chairs, desks and so forth), placing
the emphasis on them to maintain such equipment and the
premises that house them.

Such businesses are also
casting an Orwellian eye over employees in their home
environment. Expropriation, in a fashion, is not enough; it
must come with the monitoring gaze. Productivity targets
must be maintained. Elizabeth Lyons of the University of San
Diego explains
what that entails. “The things employers are really
looking for is what websites are employees on, are these
productive or unproductive websites, what apps are they
using, how much time they are spending on their different
tasks.”

In an online
survey
of 1,800 people in October conducted by Prospect,
a UK trade union representing engineers, scientists and
civil servants, two-thirds of workers expressed discomfort
at the idea of programmes being used to check the frequency
of their typing. Up to 80% were also unsettled by the use of
cameras recording them as they sat at their home computer,
with 76% uncomfortable with the idea of wearing devices
noting their location.

Some employees have been
encouraged to believe in the narcotic of efficiency and
productivity. Take Candice, a “digital marketer” behind
podcasts aiding students undertaking English proficiency
tests. Interviewed for ABC Radio National in Australia, she
is sympathetic
to her employer who “has no idea of
what I’m doing all day long.” Except that he does. But
never mind that: home surveillance technology “keeps me on
track … I can see exactly how much time I’ve spent doing
work”. Good for the unassuming Candice and co-religionists
of remote work; bad for many of us.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark
was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He
lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: [email protected]

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