Recent news items would argue that maybe not…..
Covid has ushered in a new paradigm of remote work to a degree that had never existed in the past. Remote work became not an option but a necessity. This was true of call center agents, service desks, and information technology workers of all kinds. The rule became that if you could work remotely, you should and, in many cases, were required to do so.
This was also an opportunity for people to move to more remote places, ditch the often brutal commutes, and in general, experience a better quality of life. For enterprises, it opened the door to employing people worldwide in ways they had not previously considered. Remote was the only alternative.
Necessity, as they say, is the parent of invention. Video tools became normalized. Virtual meetings became standard operating procedure. Collaboration tools like Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Slack, and others became more than convenient forms of communication; they became mission-critical and practically universal.
It was also a happy coincidence that enterprises were in the middle of migrating to cloud-based services and tools that further enabled this remote working shift. New cloud-based planning, development, accounting, security & communications tools, and more were in the right place at the right time.
Governments, for their part, relaxed many rules out of necessity. It was better to take some risk than to bring everything to a standstill.
Of course, when something is done quickly and out of necessity, it can lack all the checks and balances necessary for sustained long-term implementation. Companies began to worry about remote workers’ work habits, their ability to ramp up quickly, the adoption of company culture, and the difficulty of assessing remote worker productivity. Imagine having a new graduate who has never worked in a corporate culture adapt and understand the work environment without ever having experienced it.
Some examples of folks taking advantage of this lack of oversight are breathtaking. There are examples of contact center workers applying for and accepting 3 or 4 or 5 jobs and then farming them out overseas or to unauthorized workers (essentially imposters). Information technology workers have been known to take two or even three full-time positions and effectively work them all part-time. The inherent controls associated with going to a place of work are not always easily duplicated in a remote environment.
Enterprises, for their part, have tried to find ways to mitigate this problem. A common approach has been to use video to ensure folks are indeed working as required. Recording up time has also been used for keyboard and call-based jobs. This does not help with the imposter problems.
This brings me to the two news items that became prominent last week.
The first was a report that Equifax had fired 24 workers for having more than one full-time job. In at least one case, a person had three full-time roles. Equifax used its internal databases to make this determination. After all, keeping track of credit and employment is what Equifax does. These folks were clearly not living up to the terms of their employment agreement. According to ArsTechnica:
“Equifax followed all applicable laws in its handling of this situation,” Walker (Equifax spokesperson) told Ars. “These employees were terminated because of multiple factors, including in many cases their own admission that they had a secondary full-time position, which prevented them from fulfilling their full-time obligations to Equifax.”
Equifax is undoubtedly in a somewhat unique position because it has the tools to make this determination. For the most part, enterprises must use other tools. One such tool is video. This brings me to the second news item. According to HRD (Human Resources Director) Magazine, a tech firm was fined for firing a worker who refused to turn on their webcam. According to HRD:
“Requiring workers to turn on their webcams while working remotely is just wrong. In fact, it’s a human rights violation, a Dutch court said in a recent ruling.”
If a company cannot feel assured that a worker is doing their job in a remote environment, how can remote work be widely supported? While it is unlikely that a large number of individuals would misbehave, it is always the few that ruin it for the many. Think about someone bringing a peacock on a plane as an emotional support animal and the subsequent banning of emotional support animals. It is always a few that ruin it for the many.
Is there a technical solution to this problem? There are certainly some practical solutions. Remote work is undoubtedly less risky for roles whose productivity is easily measured. Tools like those used by Equifax could become more broadly available, although the question of legality would have to be addressed.
Biometrics are also a possible solution. Surveillance does not have to take place to authenticate people biometrically. Biometric artifacts are not reversible. In most cases can be gathered remotely and used to ascertain that the right person is at their desk. These can also be used to ensure the person doing the work is the person hired to do the work, in the case of the call center example. It is also possible to use behavioral biometrics to verify a person through their keyboard behavior. These are all technologies available today.
Remote work is attractive for many reasons, and while not all roles are possible to do remotely, and indeed onboarding new employees may not be entirely possible remotely, there is a world of possibility here that can make it more sustainable.
Perhaps, it is possible to have your cake and eat it too.