My Entirely Virtual Grad Scheme

An Orwellian experience of the future of work.

21st December 2020. My department is holding it’s annual Christmas party. The upbeat humdrum of seasonal tunes reverberates around my vicinity. My glass, tightly pinched, is awash with blood-red wine, my lips blunted by the
sweet acidity. The room is packed with faceless colleagues existing only as initials, their voice silenced by a single line. I am introduced as the bright young newcomer, a shining example of the council’s future talent. I am told to reveal
my face and tell the crowd who I am. As I finish my monologue, a muttering of muted praise and cartoon-like symbols journey through the mass. I am told by these people, still faceless, that I have done them proud and they will be
watching over me. I give my gratitude, rub my strained eyes, stretch my enfeebled back, and leave the room. Welcome to Microsoft Teams.

In case the title wasn’t clear enough, I am approaching six months into my graduate scheme. And it is paralysing me with unceasing anxiety. This is not down to the difficulty of the job, nor is it the people I work with. I simply suffer
from the incessantly subtle tension of always being at work.

One thing I will never take for granted is the power of saying no. In the Bedroom Office, this human necessity is relinquished. When 95% of your communication comes down to formal text messages, every word you put
down is brutally literal. Telling your manager you are tired means you are tired. There is no room for subjectivity. In person, your physical presence allows for a richer story. You are not just tired, you are mentally exhausted from staring at a screen and need 15 minutes of fresh air to recuperate, and your bloodshot whites show this. Without this visual picture, it is much easier for senior colleagues to interpret this for their own gain, and connect the slightest
contempt to laziness or apathy.

“Especially given you are a new grad, there is an expectation to be eager, hard-working, and sacrificial”

The impersonality of online communication removes the powerful nuances of human language. Without the opportunity to raise your eyebrows at last-minute assignments, or laugh off your capacity to help with a presentation, every “No” feels significantly more vulgar and impolite. Assertiveness is so anti-British. Especially given you are a new grad, there is an expectation to be eager, hard-working, and sacrificial.

In the pre-pandemic working world, their are clear boundaries which inform your livelihood. When you leave the office, you finish work. When you enter the tube, you are travelling to your destination. When you get home, it is time to relax.

In the virtual working world, everything is nothing as time and space blur into one. Your existence is within the confines of your laptop. That oak tree outside? You can’t touch it. The TV on the wall? It never turns on. In the middle of my patio, there is a table with a mug on top. That mug has not moved since Christmas. For all I know, it could be a portrait, or a figment of my imagination. Reality is constantly up for discussion.

Not only do you question the certainty of your being, you also doubt whether that being produces anything at all. Since starting my job, a youth club has opened down the road, an organisation-wide diversity and inclusion scheme
has begun, and half the borough has been tested for a deadly coronavirus strain. But if you didn’t see the apple, did it ever drop? The big brother tells me I’m doing a great service, but the only testament to that is the roof over my
head. The office isn’t just a building, it’s a network of people that work towards a common goal, and through the lens of a civil servant, this network exists everywhere. But if I rarely leave my house, the fruits of my labour are nothing
more than the wilted plant in the corner of my window sill.

“20% of British companies were either in the process of implementing employee tracking software or are already using it”

Earlier I mentioned how I gave my gratitude at a staff Christmas party. Here I repeat that sentiment. I genuinely like my job. I am learning at a rapid pace, absorbing everything from communications to self-management. Whilst my
contemporaries languish in a sea of applications, and mass unemployment is driving thousands to the streets, I am snug in the comfort of my duck feather duvet, content in the warmth of stability. But it is precisely this comfort that is
terrifying. That in the pursuit of a happy life, I have traded away my privacy, eroded my sense of self, and become alienated from the product of my labour. And there are millions that have done the same with stupendous ease.

A recent YouGov survey found that 20% of British companies were either in the process of implementing employee tracking software or are already using it. As someone particularly interested in authoritarian history, my alarm bells
are off the decibel scale. If news broke out that New Zealand was tracking a fifth of its population, we would all unite in moral panic for our kiwi friends. Here, however, commentary is numb. We are all so worried about our very survival that we have failed to recognise the next era of surveillance occurring right before our eyes.

But never fear, the hybrid office is here; most major companies anticipate the future of work after lockdown will be split between the office and the home. I know most people hate the commute, and you would rather not see some
colleagues in person, but if that means only two days living in a dystopian surveillance state, I’ll take it…

Written by Daniel Noruwa

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