March 2020. You’ll remember it well, I’m sure.
As the world shat itself, maybe your employer was shitting themselves, too. Maybe they were hesitant about people working from home.
But did they tell you to leave your computer camera on? All. The. Time.
In the early days of COVID-19, when we knew little and consumed a lot (anyone else fuel their fear by watching Contagion?), I definitely felt uncomfortable on public transport, commuting an hour into work each day.
Friends and family started working from home, but I was still required to go into the office throughout March, April, May…
I finally gathered the courage to ask my boss a closed question, “Do you think it’s inevitable we will work from home?” Avoiding eye contact (kind of like they were avoiding the world health crisis), they simply nodded.
It was a huge relief when we were finally told to pack up our desks and head home. On one condition (you know it): we had to leave our cameras on. All the time.
Mine was not the only jaw that dropped.
“You mean just in meetings?” someone dared query.
“No. All the time.”
They tried to sell it to us as “providing a sense of community” and “accessibility”, as well as “if someone has a question, they’ll know if you’re there or not!” It was a surveillance power trip and an acute demonstration that they didn’t trust us, not even a tiny bit. We were strictly told working from home was not an opportunity to do your laundry.
And that’s how I became an unwilling participant in the pandemic version of Big Brother.
I remember the first few days and weeks, not only did it make my internet faaaaarking slow and my laptop burning hot, but it was also stupidly distracting.
Watching people’s pixelated faces out of the corner of my eye as they watched my pixelated face out of the corner of their eye.
For the record, my boss also left their camera on all the time. I suppose they thought it was good leadership to not ask your employees to do something you wouldn’t do yourself…
The whole thing was a total headfuck.
I wanted to be productive because I was being filmed, while at the same time not wanting to be productive because screw you for telling me to leave my camera on and WHERE IS THE TRUST, but also grateful to have a job during a GLOBAL CRISIS but also this is kind of bizarre but hey you can see I’m at my desk but you can’t see my screen so really I can do whatever I want, but holy shit you’re actually WATCHING ME. In a nutshell.
Over the months, most of us slowly started turning our cameras off. Then we were reprimanded. An open question on Slack to everyone about why we weren’t leaving our cameras on and our thoughts on the matter.
I responded, along with just one other colleague.
“If I need someone, I’ll call them and they can call me!” I wrote, continuing, “Our 8:30am meetings and 5pm meetings are really lovely bookends to the day.”
(Yes, in addition to leaving our cameras on, we had a meeting every single morning where we stated what we would do that day – despite our boss being able to see this on our Trello boards. Then, every single afternoon, we had a meeting where we stated what we did that day. And on it went.)
Because only two of us spoke up and everyone else was compliant and conforming, we were essentially told, “Thanks, but no thanks. We value your opinion but also we really, really don’t. Cameras back on. Now.”
I don’t want to make this a gendered issue, but I will tell you that we were largely a workplace of young, accommodating women. I can’t help but wonder had there been more men or more dominant personalities whether the whole thing would have been a conversation rather than a command. Or maybe I’m just pissed at myself for being who they pigeonholed me to be.
I quit this year and could not be happier in my new role, at my new company. The grass is neon, iridescent green over here.
And yes, I occasionally go and do my laundry, get some groceries and go for a swim at the beach. But I also get my work done because that’s what I’m trusted to do. I feel empowered to do my best because my bosses don’t feel the need to have me under surveillance.