The last laugh: Big Brother is watching

This month Stephanie Davies takes a look at how some organisations are using AI to monitor the activity of homeworkers and asks, what about trust?

According to a recent report in The Guardian some staff at a global call centre company with 10,000 UK employees have been told that they are having a webcam-enabled monitoring system fitted to their workstations to scrutinise their activity while they work from home.

The firm, Teleperformance, says that the system is intended to help support engagement in isolated teams. It feeds images back to an AI that can spot ‘infractions’ such as eating at desks. Those logged on to the desktop Big Brother will also have to click ‘break mode’ when they leave their desks and will have to give a reason for absence to avoid being reported.

The firm’s clients include The Student Loan Company and the RAF (I know what you’re thinking. Why on earth does the RAF need a call centre? Press 1 for a drone strike. Press 2 for a Red Arrows fly-by. Press 3 to invade).

If the report is correct, the system sounds like something from a dystopian movie in my opinion. Like HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey. It probably has a big red glowing orb for an eye that attaches via USB.

What constitutes a reasonable excuse for break mode? Tea, biscuits, Amazon delivery, fridge reconnaissance?

But there will inevitably be managers and business owners who think it sounds ace, because it offers control and gives them back some of the power over their workers that remote working strips away. These people also probably demand timesheets and place trackers on their partners’ cars.

Unions and politicians are unsurprisingly against this type of surveillance and have described it as invasive. Who wants to have an algorithm peering at you while you sit at your desk picking your teeth with a pen lid? And what constitutes a reasonable excuse for break mode? Tea, biscuits, Amazon delivery, fridge reconnaissance?

The story does raise an interesting point, however. Work from home culture presents a range of challenges for employers in the service sector, one of which being, how can you monitor performance in the virtual workplace without being intrusive? Teams in an office, where everyone is the same space, are visible by nature of the environment.

In virtual space however, it’s much easier to take the piss and nip out and get your nails done in worktime, or pop to the shops outside of your lunchbreak. Clever algorithms and Orwellian AI may sound like the answer, but they will prove no match to the most determined and industrious skivers who will always find ways to cheat the system.

I expect some will use cardboard cut-outs of themselves or employ the services of lookalikes. With clever use of make-up, a determined skiver could even paint eyes on their eyelids and enjoy a snooze at their desk without alerting the despotic software.

Seriously though, what is really needed in the shift to home working is not authoritarian surveillance systems but more realistic measuring metrics. It is fair and understandable that organisations monitor the activity and productivity of their people. This is business common sense.

But it is not fair to unduly micro-manage their time. And peering through a webcam into someone’s home office, living room or toilet if that’s where they work, presents privacy issues. The real trick is to have an understanding from the beginning of what is expected of people and to have two-way conversations to ensure that everyone is on the same page.

And possibly most importantly, there is a need to move away from the culture of presenteeism that appears to be stubbornly sticking to the ‘new way of working’ many firms are trying out. In many cases it is no longer realistic or practical to watch the clock, like they used to in factories in the 50s. It is much more sensible to monitor outputs and KPIs, and for everyone to know what those expectations are.

Ultimately remote working involves a degree of trust if you do not go down the surveillance route. Some less-enlightened workplaces will be a bit uncomfortable with this. But generally, if you have a happy workplace and a healthy culture, everything will be fine – and you won’t have to employ the services of a robot overlord.


About the author

Stephanie Davies is the founder of Laughology


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