When work becomes life

Dear colleagues,

Do you take work home with you? Do you check emails in the evening, to get a head start on the next day's work? Does at-home work sometimes take precedence over family life?

These sorts of questions have become more acute with the rise of so-called flexible work and the availability of ever more ways to interact electronically.

When students want to contact their teachers, most use email, or perhaps Facebook or the phone. Maintaining office hours for students to visit was anachronistic a decade ago, yet office-hour policies are given more attention than protocols for handling emails.

Academics may not be in their offices but many of them are more "on call" than ever before. Some of this derives from increasing demands from students and colleagues. Some of it results from increasing orientation to work, which is gradually taking over from traditional home life.

These sorts of issues are tackled with great insight by Melissa Gregg in her book Work's Intimacy (Polity Press, 2011). Gregg undertook an Australian Research Council postdoctoral project in which she followed a number of Brisbane intellectual workers - in the media, libraries, and universities - looking at how information and communication technology has transformed work and personal life.

Those hardest hit are workers on contract or doing part-time jobs, especially in the so-called creative industries. Many of these workers, aspiring to gain a foothold in their preferred field, put in far more hours than they are paid for. For example, they may do emails and tweets into the night hours, because job expectations are far greater than what can actually be accomplished. Mobile technologies are so convenient that it is hard to literally switch off when away from the office. Some who work from home feel the need to respond promptly to emails to show their commitment and "presence". Checking email every 30 minutes - in the evening - is not unusual.

But there is something more going on. The new media technologies are seductive. Workers get satisfaction from their connectivity. Those who commute to work in the traditional way end up sitting in front of screens for much of the day, without the number and duration of face-to-face interactions that were previously common. As a result, workers turn to the virtual world for collegiality, using Facebook and Twitter as a relaxation from other tasks. Because of this social connection, sitting in bed checking email often doesn't feel like work, though it should be counted as work time.

Should students be accepted as Facebook friends? What about colleagues? What are the appropriate boundaries between private and work life in online spaces? These questions reflect the increased complexity of managing one's personal presence online, with ever more opportunities to interact electronically.

Gregg also delves into the delicate issue of family dynamics, looking at how online work and leisure are taking over from former ways of interacting. Friendship online is becoming more attractive as face-to-face interactions are less frequent and shallower. People are developing greater skills in intimacy online than offline. Work is becoming more attractive as an opportunity for absorbed attention and a source of personal identity.

Gregg sums up one section of her findings this way:

" ... online cultures provide a relatively safe space for workers to manage the demands of office life. Facebook friends and messaging buddies take on the role of collegial support when the workplace prevents such relationships from developing organically. Online friendships are the necessary recompense for a range of social and economic changes that include the intrusion of work into home and leisure space, the isolation of precarious employment, and the long hours culture pursued by middle-class professionals. The extent to which people choose to conduct significant parts of their personal lives online, from finding the next book they should read to finding a life partner, says something about the opportunities for intimacy in a culture that is dominated by the schedules of office workers. It also questions the reliability of previous forms of social activity and affiliation in providing enduring and satisfying relationships." (pp. 100-101)

Gregg uses the personal stories of her subjects to give a vivid picture of the changes occurring in white-collar work. She draws on recent research to supplement her analysis. Not least, her own personal experience in doing the project provided an uncanny resemblance to the lives of those she was studying.

What are the lessons from Gregg's study? Applied to universities, it is obvious that policies are so out of date as to be pointless or counterproductive. Many academics, especially casual teachers, engage in self-exploitation, aided by expectations and career ambitions. There is very little open examination of work practices and how to manage them productively. As Gregg says,

"Managers appear uninterested in exploring how work requests might be contained, and work practices streamlined, through the informed adoption of new technology. Instead, the priorities of speed, efficiency, and economics remain at the forefront of considerations. A constant onslaught of software and platform innovations, the bulk of which must be learned in employees' own time, places the onus on individuals to keep step with the function creep affecting their jobs. On a daily basis, the widespread, institutionalized dependence on email stands at the pinnacle of the problems that knowledge workers currently suffer." (p. 168)

Online interactions are largely individualistic, and so far have not become a way of organising against exploitation. Just a year ago, protesters in Tunisia and Egypt used Facebook to help organise against their dictatorial rulers, but in Australia Facebook is more a tool for negotiating identity than protesting.

One finding from research on happiness is that many people gain greater satisfaction from their work than from so-called leisure. An engrossing experience called flow can be entered most easily when using one's skills at a high level, which may be facilitated online. This seems to have been the case for one of Gregg's subjects, "Jenny".

"Jenny's guilt at not being able to contain her work indicates that in the moment of encounter she finds it thoroughly consuming: she loses her sense of time and perspective. This is, of course, another symptom of infatuation in a romantic sense. Jenny needed specific strategies to control her relationship to work. She kept her home connection limited to a desktop computer in the study to guard against temptation: 'I think if I could search the Internet everywhere, I would'." (pp. 142-143)

My guess is that after reading Work's Intimacy, many readers will know more about the work habits of Gregg's subjects than about those of their immediate colleagues. Work may be pervading the private lives of many university staff, but this is more commonly hidden than flaunted. Gregg has performed an admirable service in opening up these issues for discussion.


Brian Martin
3 February 2012

I thank Paula Arvela, Narelle Campbell, Frank Huang, Mark McLelland and Florencia Peña for valuable discussions.

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