Managers Are Becoming The New Cops Of The Workforce

Companies are distributing the means of control to their managers, including pointless, punitive policies and surveillance tools.
Ed Zitron 7 min read

A Gallup poll from last week showed that 45% of full-time U.S. employees worked from home either all or part of September, unchanged from July and August, which, as Gallup says, suggests that the push to ‘return to work’ has lost steam. Companies may have finally started to realize that this whole remote work thing isn’t going away and that they’re going to have to offer something, even if it’s a paltry four weeks a year of remote work time like American Express is offering.

The continual problem you’re seeing is that companies aren’t willing to commit to either side of the debate. AMEX quotes that 80% of employees want to come back “at least some of the time,” which seems like a question was asked that was extremely vague about how many days “some of the time” refers to. Amazon has now said that they’re going to be allowing “many tech and corporate workers to work remotely indefinitely,” with the moon-sized asterisk of “as long as they can commute to the office when necessary.” Alongside that extremely easy-to-abuse wording, there’s also an additional problem - that remote work can be done “at the discretion of the team.”

In essence, this means that your manager will be the person who decides whether your team comes in, and that, as I’ve hinted at before, is going to be how companies effectively banish remote work. In fact, I had an anonymous tipster add this about Cisco Meraki, a company that has been hailed for offering “flexibility, choice, wellness and inclusion”:

Cisco has made big noise about "our new hybrid work future". Which in practice, at least at Meraki (a division of Cisco, based in SF) means managers at the team level -- leaders of 5-15 people -- get to decide on remote or "traditional" arrangements. And many of the team managers are stating "100% traditional in-office once we return to office.”

Your quote about Credit Karma just stung because it's exactly the same as what I'm seeing. Big noise from corporate, undermined by Peter Principle local managers.

I wish any of this was surprising, but it is interesting considering the research that Cisco themselves put out that said that 64% of their customers’ employees agreed that remote work directly affected their willingness to stay at a job. Then again, plenty of companies have chosen to simply ignore the productivity benefits and research (their own, in this case) and go with something that makes them feel warm and happy inside - sending them back to the office so that they can Webex in with people in other offices.

The distribution of power back to managers is one of the more depressing things I’ve seen in the recent growth of remote work, including every single one of the New York Times pieces. It’s a perfect crime - you’re allowed to work remotely, as long as your manager says okay, and we have a “great culture” that “promotes flexibility” is something that reads nicely but likely sucks in practice, with your work conditions being entirely dependent on the whims and feelings of a single person. And it’s going to be the way that companies do this going forward because when a manager decides that a team needs to come into the office, they can suggest that they’re worker-friendly and “going with what our people want,” without acknowledging any of the industrial pressure that a company can put on you through management or, indeed, how managers are often given quiet remits from the company side.

I also wondered if it was legal, which is why I went to Austin K. So, the Chief Legal Officer of a public company in the Philadelphia area and asked about whether these flexible working relationships are questionably legal:

Any time there is discretionary application of job requirements, there is a risk of discrimination, or at least of an allegation of discrimination based on actual or perceived patterns that run along the lines of race, gender or other protected class.  

In order to avoid the appearance or perception of discrimination, managers should set standards based on objective criteria, such as job descriptions and duties, and apply those standards uniformly across departments or job categories.  For example, a manager may require all warehouse workers to work in-person five days a week, while permitting IT staff to work remotely three days a week, based upon the ability or inability to complete job duties remotely.  Conversely, a manager may not require one secretary to work in-person five days a week while allowing another with similar job duties to work remotely, absent a defensible, objective rationale.  

Companies should ensure that managers are setting objective, non-discriminatory standards for flexible working situations and enforcing those standards uniformly across departments or job categories.

Austin makes a good point about the fact that there are some defensible positions that demand in-office time - but those have to have a firm level of “you can’t do this from home” and that discretionary application of policy is risky.

The problem is that the dissemination of HR-adjacent personnel decision-making to managers is going to lead to managers destroying your ability to work from home. A study from August of last year said that 84% of workers blame managers for creating unnecessary stress. Another SHRM study said that 72% of managers would prefer their subordinates back in the office.

As a response to proof that people can and will work well remotely without their supervision, managers are being given more ability to supervise and control people. It’s another example of where companies that are talking about being part of the “future of work” are obsessed with keeping us in the past, changing the idea of management to something more like a prison guard, concerned more with being able to see you working than the work itself. The irony is that the pandemic proved we need fewer managers - but thanks to the tireless work of some of the most stupid and powerful morons in the world, we’re going to create more busywork for them to pretend they’re important.

Managers are also being given the ability to surveil workers, with draconian “workplace surveillance” software that ranges from logging the keys that you press and the websites you visit to actively measuring where you’re looking and for how long. The Washington Post had one particularly insane-sounding story:

Then she received a laptop in the mail with her instructions: To get paid, she’d have to comply with a company-mandated facial recognition system for every minute of her contract. If she looked away for too many seconds or shifted in her chair, she’d have to scan her face back in from three separate angles, a process she ended up doing several times a day.

It’s another beat in the long song of companies that want to measure productivity and success based on metrics that make them feel good rather than ones that are indicators of things that happened:

Companies say the tracking offers a critical way to ensure their employees are staying productive and telling the truth about how much they work when their bosses are many miles away. Some employers have voiced concerns that, without the monitoring, their workers might cut corners or pursue multiple jobs simultaneously, depriving them of the focus and labor they need to stay competitive in the remote-work era.

I would absolutely love to hear whether managers and CEOs are measured on their own productivity - or indeed what the “truth” is about how much they work. It isn’t (just) about privacy, either - it’s about the fact that most of these productivity measurement things are not indicative of success, or even whether the person is doing the thing that you’re measuring on. I spoke with my good friend Dr. Ben Wolfe (credentials at the end of the quote) about the subject, and the results are pretty clear that surveillance tech sucks at actually surveilling:

To start with, it makes terrible fundamental assumptions about human behavior. If the idea is that you can operationalize attention based on gaze (which is fundamentally wrong, because you can attend somewhere other than where you look), it's additionally assuming that your employee is always looking where you, the boss, think they need to be looking. This is a really common mistake in a lot of applied spaces (e.g., people who study driving think drivers need to look at pedestrians to notice them, when peripheral vision will damn well tell you that there's something in your field of view).

The idea of a gaze-based attention score is fundamentally based on an incorrect understanding of gaze and attention, and all that it really tells you, unless you have a research-grade eye tracker and a panopticon view of your user, plus enough analytics to make sense of your panopticon, is "user looked at or didn't look at screen"

Dr. Benjamin Wolfe, Assistant Professor in Psychology at the University of Toronto, and a co-director of the Applied Perception and Psychophysics Laboratory, which specializes in applying vision science methods like eye tracking to real-world problems.

These tools, which are sold with the idea of “keeping employees honest,” do a fairly terrible job at doing so. According to Dr. Wolfe, “…if you don’t know what they’re looking at (hey, now you don’t just need a screencap tool recording a timelocked feed of their screen, you need their environment as well to see what else they look at), you have a bunch of meaningless eye movements….and better still: webcam eyetracking is, at best, able to tell you “user looked at this portion of a screen.”

Yet it’s another way in which managers are being empowered with the ability to control the lives of their workers, giving managers the ability to “measure” their workers based on something other than output. It’s also something that CEOs are going to love - a future-forward-sounding idea that lets them pretend they’re doing Moneyball with workers, using the “hard data” to make “business outcomes” that don’t likely connect to the bullshit software they’re making their workers use. As Dr. Wolfe told me, “we don’t - and can’t - keep our gaze in one place all the time while doing real tasks, so the assumptions are both flawed and evil,” yet the use of this software has jumped 50% since the pandemic started, including, and I quote, “software…[that] allows managers to secretly spy on employees, including turning on remote cameras and microphones.”

This “tattleware” can also do things like monitor workers’ social media, the websites they visit and other things that will tell your boss absolutely nothing other than stuff they can interpret in a way that benefits them and hurts you.

I admit that I am disappointed in myself that I didn’t come to this conclusion sooner, looking at the world through rose-tinted glasses and thinking that we might see an end to managers as we knew it. While I still believe that it might happen, I also think that the ultimate next step is to find managers a new job, giving them (instead of more resources to help their workers) more power and more things to keep an eye on.

This is the new workplace militarization, a hyper-efficient way to punish the worker and empower do-nothing management with the ability to control the entire workday of their underlings. Companies would rather burn out their employees and hurt their productivity than lose a single iota of control, and they’re naturally going to gravitate toward solutions that help them keep it - even if these solutions hurt their ability to make money.

The natural counterargument is that these pieces of software are bad, and thus companies will realize their benefits are nebulous. To that, I have a simple question: how many places have you worked that had ridiculous processes that actively stopped you from getting your work done?

Yeah. That’s why I’m worried.

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