2021’s hot new remote work trend: unscheduled supervisor visits!

Companies want the right to peer into your work from home setup, but not necessarily for the reason you think.

Overworked and feeling it
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The past two-ish years of pandemic living have brought huge swaths of the country’s workforce of the office and into the relative sterility of their homes. It hasn’t been a seamless transition by any means, nor has it been an equitable one. But after months of adjusting to this new employment reality for those privileged enough for it to matter, the question has largely shifted from “Will working from home actually work?” to “Why shouldn’t this be the new normal from here on out?” The onus, then, has largely shifted from workers having to justify clocking in from their sofas, beds, and maybe even home offices, to employers having to justify why they shouldn’t.

It’s this precarious dance that has evidently prompted a new wrinkle in the hiring practices of many companies eager to capitalize on a workforce now used to working from home, while at the same time still wanting to maintain the level of picayune control over their day-to-day activities they had within the confines of an office space. The solution, it seems, is to slide some deeply questionable language into job postings — like, say, reserving the right to pop by an employee’s home, unannounced, just to check in and make sure everything’s okie-dokie.

Here’s an example (since removed) from toy manufacturer Mattel:

In addition to mandating the prospective remote employee have a “closed-door work area with no distractions or background noise (i.e.: pets, children, machinery, music, or talking)” — because there’s never any background noise, music, talking, or ambient machine noise when you’re working in an official office, right? — the listing warned, “There may be periodic unplanned visits from a supervisor during scheduled work shifts.”

Let me get this straight. You mean to say that if I were hired for this job, I could be sitting here, in my home office (I am extremely fortunate to actually have a small room with a door that I can work out of), only for my boss — someone I may never have met in person before! — to ring my bell, walk right in, and start sizing up the place. And god forbid there be talking or music occurring during this surprise visit from the corporate panopticon, because presumably that would be grounds for termination — regardless of whether or not it actually affects the actual work I’m producing.

In a statement to the New York Post, Mattel walked back the extremely obtrusive prerequisite for the position, saying that “while security is a critical piece of this role, the job description no longer includes language about unplanned visits, which were never put into practice.”

Still, the inclusion of “we can pop in any time, even though it’s your literal home” language is evidently prevalent enough in recent job listings that journalist Anne Helen Petersen labeled it a “Big, Poorly Camouflaged Red Flag” in a recent Substack post, writing that it’s “a demand I’ve been hearing from more and more workers — particularly those in more risk-adverse workplaces (big insurance companies, some financial institutions) or city/state/federal workers.”

The thing is, according to attorneys who spoke with Petersen about this particular trend, however much we might balk at the transparent intrusiveness (my boss, in my HOME?), the actual legal reasoning is even more insidious: Effectively, it’s to make sure that if you’re injured on the job, the company is as insulated as possible. Per Petersen:

In most cases, this is boilerplate legalese that’s part of a general effort to ward off messy workplace comp/OSHA complaints, or to set forth a defense to deal with them after they’ve been filed. There’s a general concern that if you let workers work regularly from home, and they injure themselves in some way in that home, the company will be held liable via worker’s comp— and that includes liability for (expensive, ongoing) health issues related to bad ergonomic set-ups. Putting language like this in a remote agreement (or, conversely, asking workers to waive their right to sue if something does happen) is a means of warding off this situation.

In other words, companies probably don’t want to surprise you at your house so much as they just don’t want to be responsible for you getting hurt on their watch. It’s not about extending authority into your private property — at least, not entirely about that — as it is about shirking responsibility for those ostensibly under their care.

Which isn’t to say there aren’t plenty of other ways companies have adapted to pry their way into your work-from-home setups. Corporate monitoring always finds a way. Just know that if you’re ever in a position to accept a job that includes a surprise visit clause, odds are you won’t actually be getting an unannounced pop-in anytime soon. But never say never.