The Age Of Clocking Into Work Should Be Over

Requiring workers to clock in with a fob or on Slack is surveillance. And it's not working.
Is clocking in an obsolete practice?
guoya via Getty Images
Is clocking in an obsolete practice?

You’re reading Life-Work Balance, a series aiming to redirect our total devotion to work into prioritising our personal lives.

As sexy as it sounds, I used to be a “banal cyborg” – that’s the word cultural critic and theorist Mark Fisher has given to people who work in call centres.

For those employed in call centre work – many of whom are on zero-hours contracts – being surveilled is part and parcel of the job.

Employers can listen in on any call, and often do, to monitor every aspect of your work, from tone and accent to speed and your manners – even as you encounter daily abuse from callers, racist or otherwise.

As someone who worked in three call centres as a student, I was subject to plenty of irritation, anger and prejudice from those on the other end of the line.

But on each call, and with bosses listening in, I was expected to maintain a level-headedness that doesn’t come naturally in the circumstances. Hanging up or responding to profanities with some of my own could be a sackable offence.

The 812,000 call centre workers in the UK can attest to the surveillance nature of this work culture. Many are left with little autonomy and become accustomed to their seniors listening in and dictating every response.

But it’s not just call centres that employ surveillance. Another commonplace measure of tracking employees is the expectation that you ‘clock in’ to work.

In many jobs on factory and shop and hospitality floors, this can look like clocking in physically via a fob or card. For the virtual worker, it might mean logging into the workplace Slack or video-calling app like Zoom or Teams. Either way, the action alerts your manager that you’re here, and you’re working.

Or does it? The pandemic has brought working from home into the mainstream, but it doesn’t mean workers are adhering to rigid hours.

Many might be making their attendance known, only to go back to sleep, cook and eat their breakfast, exercise or get on with some household chores. That’s not to say they’re necessarily slacking with their work in a larger sense or compromising the tasks they need to achieve in a day – or week.

Some may be working more efficiently in shorter bursts. Some may even be working overtime, as the separation of the personal and professional blurs.

Since Covid, more than half (52%) of workers have been found to be working more than their contracted hours, with 41% putting in an extra five to ten hours a week, and another quarter clocking up more than 10 extra hours in that time.

But if the work is getting done (whether within the traditional nine to five or not), then what’s the point of clocking in and out? It’s actually illegal to deduct wages if someone forgets to clock into their shift, unless it’s stipulated in their contract, and the employee has agreed to this deduction in writing.

There are some pretty dystopian methods to monitor workers.
Dmitriy Kotin / 500px via Getty Images
There are some pretty dystopian methods to monitor workers.

Michael Gold, a professor of comparative employment relations at Royal Holloway University of London, says the concept is out of date. “Clocking in would have arrived with the introduction of large-scale manufacturing factories in the (early/mid) 19th century,” he says.

Since then, technologies have evolved, but employees still submit to their employers in questionable ways. Methods include using finger or handprint technology, retina scans and voice recognition. geofencing and GPS tracking.

Not only can these systems feel invasive, they also have considerable privacy implications. And the more technology is involved in a process, the more obscure that process can become – at least to the worker.

Uber and Deliveroo drivers have to submit to the whims of an algorithmic app that dictates which deliveries to pick up and whether they’ve successfully completed an order. Amazon’s automated systems track warehouse workers and send warnings if a person isn’t moving fast enough – leading to a large turnover of staff as hundreds of people get sacked for not fulfilling quotas.

When technology is your boss in this way, it also becomes more difficult to contest or appeal a decision, and to rectify and remedy any problems.

The concept of clocking in harks back to industrialisation.
ljubaphoto via Getty Images
The concept of clocking in harks back to industrialisation.

Stephen Butler, a professor of psychology at the University of Prince Edward Island, has researched the impact of advanced capitalism on wellbeing, and says there are many problems with this lack of trust in employes.

“It speaks to surveillance and alienation,” he tells HuffPost UK. “If the goal is to build up relationships, teamwork, and trust within organisations – a group of people working together to both maximise productivity and work satisfaction – [then] virtually clocking in will undermine these goals.

“It also can be seen to frame the worker as untrustworthy with the potential to be antisocial and cheat the employer – as surveillance to reduce antisocial and criminal behaviour is well known in society.”

So what do we do? As Butler sees it: “To promote intrinsic motivation about such things as pride in one’s work and investment in the employer, it would be much better to help the employee feel they have greater control over their work life and are being treated like capable, responsible employees who know about getting to work on time and putting in a good day’s work.”

This goes for remote working as much as in-person jobs, he says. “Virtually clocking in seems to cling to a factory model of the worker, which is a holdover from industrialism, and a very reductive view of the individual/worker.

|If the goal is to promote autonomous and capable individuals who are equipped to deal with the complex social demands of advanced capitalist societies, surveillance and the threat of punishment is not the way to get them there.”

Technology was supposed to make our lives easier and more manageable, Butler notes. Instead, in increasingly dystopian ways, advancements seem to amplify competition and scrutiny, and encroach on privacy. The focus instead should be on imagining better, more trusting worlds.

Daniel Lee Kleinman, a professor of sociology at Boston University, believes in the possibilities that could manifest if employers had more faith in employees.

“We spend a huge number of hours working each week. When those who are working are trusted by management and given space and autonomy, work can offer opportunities for creativity, community building and (positive) identity formation,” he says.

“When work is regimented and workers are under given little room for autonomous action and experience constant surveillance, they are likely to feel alienated. I suspect we are all better off if those who are working are trusted and respected by management than if they are treated as untrustworthy tools.”

Life-Work Balance questions the status quo of work culture, its mental and physical impacts, and radically reimagines how we can change it to work for us.

HuffPost UK/ Isabella Carapella