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Home-working surveillance: Utopian or dystopian?

Doug Bamford

Worker surveillance is often considered more dystopian than utopian, with its connotations of intrusion and control. Yet employers pursue it because it promises to improve the productivity of their workforce.

As technology companies develop more tools to assist remote businesses and managers, ethical questions come to the fore. Moral and Political philosophers such as myself and Dr Carissa Véliz have been considering this topic, and have been pleased to share our responses to findings from VMware’s recent Virtual Floorplan report, which explored attitudes to the new era of work and the rise of surveillance to measure productivity.

What are the social benefits?

If workplace surveillance tools live up to their promise, then they should increase worker productivity. This should increase GDP and improve our material lifestyles. Of course, material outcomes aren’t all that matter—we wouldn’t want to be affluent slaves—but having higher wages and cheaper products gives us more options. We can consume more for the same amount of work or consume the same amount while working less.

My own interest in the technology came about as it could enable a much more progressive tax and benefit system. My proposal is for the tax (and benefit) system to take account of the number of hours that people work over their lives and not just the money earned each year. Rewarding people for the hours they work as well as their income can then counter the tendency for greater inequality in pay between high and low earners.

The common complaint about progressive economic proposals like mine is that they will discourage people from working hard, thus reducing economic output. Taking account of hours worked would counter this. However, will employers and workers misrepresent the number of hours being worked to cheat the system?

By collecting information about the number of hours people work, workplace monitoring software can assuage such concerns.

Potential downsides

There are several concerns about workplace surveillance tools.

Potential pitfall 1: Demotivating employees

Workers often worry that surveillance tools are good for business executives and shareholders but bad for them. Greater profits will be made at the expense of victimized and hassled workers. Won’t the more productive workers leave the roles in which they are being surveilled? Recent findings from VMware show evidence of this process. In which case, will the more invasive firms simply end up less productive?

I wonder if this is a case where firms that already have poor workplace relations are using surveillance tools in ways that further demoralise their workers. If this means that better workers leave then this is not going to be good for the business. Constantly hiring and training new staff is costly after all. Furthermore, there could be reputational damage if a firm gets associated with poor treatment of its staff.

So, firms should be careful not to just assume that surveillance will automatically increase productivity. The right tools must be used in the right way.

Potential pitfall 2: Encroachment into private life

Dr Véliz also emphasized concerns about the way that employment could encroach into private life.

There is a general concern that communication tools have blurred the line between work and other parts of life, since workers are always on call. Perhaps workplace monitoring software would counter that by clearly delineating when workers are working and not.

Other concerns are even more dystopian. Collection of location data on employees engaged in private activities and the possibility of filming other vulnerable family members are very real concerns.

This of course relates to Dr Véliz’s wider concerns about data protection and privacy, and she added concerns that collecting detailed employee information creates extra risks for those individuals, but also for the firm itself. Jason Conyard, CIO and Senior Vice President, VMware, emphasized that employers have strong obligations and responsibilities to protect the data that they collect on their employees.

Utopia or Dystopia?

Will workplace monitoring lead towards a utopia or a dystopia? It is too early to say, and it will depend on the decisions of technology companies and employers.

Employers will need to make sure they are using appropriate tools that will help their business. The tools should be used in an open and transparent manner, making sure to achieve worker buy-in. The data collected should be very carefully stored and thoroughly deleted when no longer required.

The rest of us should not be passive about these developments either. Workers, unions, citizens (as voters) and governments (as regulators and rule-setters) all have a role to play in ensuring that we avoid the dystopian possibilities and achieve the more utopian ones.

Is it inevitable?

I believe that it is inevitable that worker monitoring will only increase as they become cheaper and more effective. If the tools improve productivity, then this will drive their adoption. Companies compete with one another, and the firm that gets extra productivity from its employees is likely to outperform its rivals.

Workers may have concerns about these developments, but I do not think that they will have the power to resist them. Individual workers have to agree to use the software provided by their company as required by their contracts. Governments and unions are less powerful than they once were, and I do not think they will be able to repel the process. The hope is that they will help to guide it in a better direction.


Overall, my view is that if workplace technology improves productivity, employee device monitoring and worker surveillance is inevitable. There are a lot of concerns that these tools end up benefitting businesses but harm individuals. The task for all of us is to avoid the potential pitfalls and make sure it works for everyone in society.

Douglas Bamford is a Researcher & Tutor in Philosophy and Political Economy at The University of Oxford. With a keen interest in political philosophy and public policy, Douglas is an advocate for exploring ways that new technology can change the economic system, with a particular interest in creating a fairer tax system based on employee data.


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