Real “digital working” may not be far away. And not as cool as expected

COVID-19 led to forced remote work, forced and coerced adoption of new communication tools and uses, and I hear many people say that a milestone has been reached and that there will be no turning back.

The big step back after COVID

To me nothing is less sure.

More and more employees feel pressure to return to the office despite the advice of the health authorities. This may be for good reasons (the social link) but I will not be taken away from the idea that some little bosses, presenteeism adepts and other micromanagers intend to get their toys back and continue as before.

The use of the tools has been forcibly implemented but the deep nature of management has not changed. And when collaborative uses are out of step with management when the situation returns to normal, it is the manager who wins. We are far from a culture of results and managers want to regain their comfort zone. I don’t blame them: more often than not, they don’t like the job but it’s the only way to advance in their career and we haven’t done anything to help them develop.

In the end, the move to remote work on a large scale should not have caused a revolution in management and uses, and moreover did not do so in companies where the practice was already established and mastered. It was only elsewhere that it hurt. In fact, many things that are done face-to-face do not work remotely, whereas everything that works remotely works at the office.

But since we couldn’t do it from a distance like in the office, we had a fake managerial transformation, suffered and not chosen.

Why trust when you can monitor better remotely than at the office?

For some people the future of work, “digital work” is to function all the time as we functioned remotely with the same values, cultures, tools and uses. For others it is to be able to replicate remotely what they were doing wrong at the office.

Behind all the liberating rhetoric lies another reality of digital work: the digital surveillance of employees on a large scale.

  • One knows what you’re typing
  • One knows what software you use
  • One knows which sites you are going to
  • If you take a coffee break or go to the bathroom your manager is alerted of your inactivity.

A market existed for this type of software and recent events have been a godsend for those who sell them. Look at a tool like Time Doctor it’s magic. Or it’s scary, depending on your point of view.

Monitoring may be warranted

Surprisingly enough, I can understand the use of such solutions even if I do not support them. There are still “purely productive” jobs that consist only of typing, no need to think about what you do or how you do it. What is expected of them is simple, easy to measure, production is directly related to time spent. I don’t think these jobs will survive for long, but they are there and will be there for some time to come.

I understand this reflex of control or even self-protection of companies that are not very mature about remote work or that have a certain vision of work. But I do not support it. From the moment that output is very easily measured from a quantitative point of view, why bother to follow it? All you have to do is read the meters in the evening and see who is working or not and at what pace and address the subject at that level. This is a culture of results.

Then comes the argument that “we don’t want to take the risk that a productivity problem exists before we realize that it exists“. There is a recruitment problem here: if we don’t trust someone, why recruit them?

Surveillance is unsuitable for the majority of jobs for three reasons

And this is even more true for all jobs where the “output” is more complex to identify and measure, and not directly related to the time spent. So a vast majority of them. Here such an approach is negative for three reasons.

1°) The message sent is “we don’t trust you“. Good for engagement and mutual trust.

2°) You send another message which is “do a lot even if you do wrong“.

3°) One will only measure activity for jobs whose productivity and value created is not due to the intensity of the activity or the time spent. So the measures taken to “improve” things will necessarily be inadequate since one will be looking for the problem in the wrong direction. “He doesn’t work hard enough” will replace questioning the quality of the instructions received, the information received, the management and so on.

Is the surveillance legal?

You will tell me that such systems are illegal and that I could have started there to close the subject for good, but it’s not that simple. Depending on the country, the legislation, the nature of the employment or even the contractual relationship between the client and the contractor, this may be illegal or, in any case, the answer is not obvious. And in any case it is anything but totally prohibited.

What future for surveillance tools for computers?

Can such tools be expected to be successful? Well, once local legal factors are taken into account, I think that yes, or at least that it will not be just a niche market. It seems equally obvious to me for all the reasons mentioned above that it will only last for a limited time, but the question will then be to know after how long and what damage it will have caused until then.

So yes, the future of work and fully digital work is on its way. But they may take forms you didn’t expect and not be as “cool” as you hoped.

Photo : Big Brother by Aleutie via Shutterstock

Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler
Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler

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