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Until now, home offices have largely been based on trust, says Ulrich Remus, a business information specialist from the University of Innsbruck. But that could change in the corona crisis. The demand for monitoring software has increased. Now employees are being sent home to work who don’t want it at all and don’t have the infrastructure at home, either. For their part, employers fear a significant loss of control. Digital monitoring can therefore come more and more into play, according to Remus.

Remus has been dealing with digital forms of work for many years. The corona crisis is an interesting field of research for him because the world of work has shifted significantly into the digital space.

The researcher was interviewed by Innovation Origins.

Ulrich Remus (c) University of Innsbruck – I. Seeber

Is home office the better form of employment?

That is a difficult question. There are several factors that play a role. First, it depends on the type of work. For example, for simple work in a home office, such as in a call center, there have been large efficiency gains. Employees sometimes work at home the whole week. In knowledge-intensive, creative jobs that focus on work efficiency, most people are only at home for one or two days. Here, too, the experiences are very positive. A mix of home office and office is a good idea, because you are less disturbed at home, work trips are eliminated, etc. But it often requires interaction with colleagues, because a lot happens face-to-face. These are things that cannot simply be transferred to the virtual space in the form of video conferences and need to be carefully thought out if they are to work.

Whether home office is the better solution also depends on social and personal factors. Do you have self-discipline? Are you intrinsically motivated? Are you more motivated by the group? Do you use flexibility at home? If home office work is structured the right way and aims for trust, it will be well received. This also applies to home learning. There are now students who say: “At last I can learn at my own pace.”

When you heard about the initial restrictions due to the corona crisis, what came to mind?

I have been following the developments for quite some time now, also because I am interested in how China is trying to contain the pandemic with a huge digital control apparatus. Here at the university we were already considering how we can switch our courses to home learning. In short, the mandatory home office did not really surprise me.

As a researcher,  you like to take on the role of an observer and see how society deals with it. This is also against the background of the fact that there is no real visible enemy in the corona crisis, giving the pictures and news in the media a special meaning. Many people can therefore only get a sense for the problem of corona through the actions taken to combat it and through the media coverage. I found this interesting.

Now you are observing the development of the home office topic in the corona crisis?

In the corona crisis, home office and home learning are mandatory, not voluntary. Therefore the experiences should be treated with caution. After the crisis we need to understand the individual situation to see why the experience was negative for certain people. If both parents are required to have a home office and look after their children, a negative perception is more likely. I hope, however, that corona now finally offers the chance to make home office presentable beyond the typical IT start-ups.

When it comes to privacy, what do people working from a home office generally agree to?

Prior to the corona crisis, home offices were more of an incentive. Those who were allowed to work home were trusted. Now we have the situation that employees are being required to work from their home office who do not want to and do not have the infrastructure at home. There are also employers who fear a significant loss of control because of home offices.

This can bring increased digital surveillance and transparency into play. The software Sneek, for example, takes pictures at regular intervals to see if people are sitting at their desk. The provider markets it in a positive way, saying that they want to virtually map collaboration and promote cohesion. But of course it opens the door to digital surveillance using all kinds of biometric and behavioral data.

In the future, it could also go in the direction of “Okay, you can work at home, but only if you install a control app,” and that’s not how it should be. This points to the discourse that we should be having now. Until now, home office has been based on trust. And this is a good thing, because many of the advantages of the home office can only be realized through trust. Research shows that as soon as the feeling of being under external surveillance arises, intrinsic motivation decreases. Also, people then increasingly try to trick the surveillance.

Berlin-based philosopher Byung-Chul Han says that where there is transparency there is no room for trust. The call for software to create transparency is therefore also the typical reaction of a control society that does not trust enough.

Do employers use digital surveillance for their home office employees?

As far as I know this is not yet widely used in Germany and Austria. In China and the United States, digital control mechanisms are already more commonplace. This will also spread to us in the form of monitoring software. Companies offering this software indicate on their websites that demand has risen sharply during the corona crisis.

However, there is also software that is not monitored by third parties, but is instead used for self-regulation and control. You can install apps for yourself, which, for example, block access for a certain period of time to certain sources of distraction – the Internet, for example. These are intended to prevent problems of cyber slacking, i.e., the deliberate distraction caused by surfing the Internet. It is important to know that every context change costs extra time to get back to work. The important thing here is that the employee decides for himself how and when he uses such apps, so he retains control over them.

Have the technical requirements for home offices already been met?

The technical requirements are already in place. More problematic is the Internet, which is overloaded due to increased use, especially through streaming and video downloads. With data-intensive applications such as video conferences or teaching events, bottlenecks can already occur. The issue of security should also always be taken into account.

But for the usual interactions, the functionality is certainly sufficient and the tools are very user-friendly. I think people work in their home office because they want to work in peace. The more interactive phases of collaboration can then take place in the office. There is also a very expensive technology that enables a virtual experience in 3D, comparable to a face-to-face meeting. You have the feeling as if you were sitting in the meeting yourself. Large companies use that.

Finally, I certainly don’t want to see a further increase in digital surveillance that can be introduced via the “corona” back door. There are many things that are technologically feasible, but the potential negative effects on society are not clear. My hope is that many people will take advantage of the positive side of things and not try to catch up with everything after the crisis is over and become even more trapped in the rat race of digital acceleration.

Thank you for the interview.

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