Work and Power

As happens once something interesting comes my way then there seem to be several more supporting or similar things. There's a particular phrase on this 'reticular activation', which points to the phenomenon that it's brain activity (by the reticular activating system) and not happenstance that leads to being alerted and suddenly paying attention to what is already there. In normal circumstances according to a Sherlock Holmes aphorism 'You see but you do not observe'. Once alerted, in my experience, the observation follows.

The things that formed a pattern this week are all to do with work and power. In the first instance it was actual electrical power. Washington DC, where I live, and several adjacent states suffered a severe storm on Friday June 29 that resulted in a power cut (outage) including, for some, cut off of internet and phone connections. I was out of the country at the time so unaffected but now I am back and traveling down to visit a friend in Southern Virginia who today, July 8, still has no power or water and very intermittent phone and internet. (The water is pumped from a well).

Hearing this I started to think about how most knowledge work cannot get done without access to electrical power or internet availability. A friend told me a story of how when the internet went down in her house one evening at 9:00 p.m. the five residents (who were all on their individual laptops at the time) decided that there was nothing else to do but go to bed.

I find myself in much that mindset. Without internet access and ability to charge my laptop and other devices I am handicapped. So I've been contingency planning in case there's no power the week I am visiting. But that has led me to wonder:

  • Why I'm so dependent on being in the 'always on world'
  • How much individual power I have to design my life with less dependence on being 'always on'
  • The power organizations have to expect or demand that knowledge workers are always on

So I read with some interest the articles and blogs that came my way that touched on these topics this week. In my case, there's no doubt that I am in the 'always on' world. I am a knowledge worker, working across multiple time-zones, teaching in an on-line university, writing books that require on-line research and interactions with people in other locations.

The Dell/Intel research on the evolving workforce puts the case that this ability to be constantly busy is a benefit saying that:

"Rapid developments in technology have empowered the workforce to adopt new ways of working. We're already experiencing the benefits of today's technology in our personal lives – on the go access at the tips of our fingers, the latest gadgets which connect our home and work devices. We simply want to extend these benefits into the professional realm and, in the current environment, expect employers to provide the capability. This expectation and sense of entitlement will only become more commonplace as younger generations of 'digital nomads,' who have grown up with technology all their lives, enter the workforce."

Notice the words "empowerment" and "sense of entitlement" [to the latest gadgets]. But other writers – obviously not those from the technology companies – are more circumspect on the 'benefits' of a world of informational torrent. They point to the fact that many individuals may have difficulty designing a life that doesn't involve being always available. Partly this is to do with showing that by keeping up by rapidly responding you are 'hard-working'.

Oscar Berg's piece takes this view. He notes that:

"A heavy workload and the feeling of information overload make many people think no further than the number of unread items in their inboxes. For them, getting things done is about the number of emails they answer, the number of meetings they attend, and the number of documents they write or review. In such a work environment, a large number of unread emails in the inbox, a calendar filled with meetings, and a large collection of documents are symbols of hard-working people".

Tim Kreider in his NY Times blog piece The Busy Trap suggests that

"The present [busyness] hysteria is not a necessary or inevitable condition of life; it's something we've chosen, if only by our acquiescence to it."

The use of the word "acquiescence" raised questions in my mind. In my own case how much am I acquiescing to the explicit or implicit demands of my work either self-imposed or employer/client imposed without consciously choosing or even reflecting on, other ways of approaching what I do? Could I design my work and leisure differently, and why would I want to reduce my dependence on the 'always on world'?

Undoubtedly I could reduce my always on-ness as I am fortunate in having alternate choices available – as Tim Kreider clearly does. I know I could choose not to do some of what I do and would not suffer financially. But I choose not to do less or differently. And I smiled when I found out this week from a CNN blog by Thom Patternson, that I am now leading a 'weisure' life having "abandoned the 9-to-5 workday for the 24-7 life of weisure."

Apparently, this is the next step in the evolving work-life culture according to New York University sociologist Dalton Conley, who coined the word. "[Weisure] makes their (the members of the creative class) work a source of meaning and fun to them, and thus the work-all-the-time mentality is partly driven by choice and desire."

OK, good. So Kreider and I have the wherewithal and circumstances to make healthy or at least informed choices. But what about those people who have fewer or more restricted choices? Neither Patterson nor Kreider talk about workers who feel pressured to be constantly available and always on because they fear losing their job and fear that they won't get another, who have families to support and worry about financial instabilty. I am thinking of those who have little in the way of resource or positional power, on minimum or low wages. Although still knowledge workers and part of the 'always on' economy they don't have the same choices as the people Kreider seems to be talking about (although he does mention those who feel constant anxiety and guilt if they are not responsive to the instant demands made possible by technology).

Not for these is the benefit of reflective time or idleness that Kreider talks about in his piece, saying:

"Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets. The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration -— it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done."

And this brings me to the third aspect of work and power which came my way this week. It is the politico-economic-social system and the relationship this brings to bear on what used to be called the 'psychological contract' between employers and employees. (Is it still called that?) This politico-economic-social system aspect was addressed when into my email came a message from someone who'd been discussing Ivor Southwood's book, Non-Stop Inertia. He uses the term 'precarity' that he explains, in an interview, as coming

"out of the transition to post-Fordist ways of working – out of the period of Fordism and stability. People were sold an idea that they were being unchained from industry and having a boring job for life, and that they would be endlessly mobile, aspiring characters. But it seems to me that the price for all of that is a constant nagging insecurity. The idea of precarity is this sort of machinery of anxiety. It's a sort of a technology in the workplace and in culture, which has been introduced and extended, and allows us to keep on functioning."

I haven't read enough of the book, or the work of others writing and researching in this specific field to comment confidently, but I but it does seem that the 'always on' world means a very different dynamic of what is being 'sold' to workers of every level by technology companies, by companies, by governments, and by social media protocols. So now I am busy asking myself questions on what this means for organization designers. Any thoughts would be most welcome.