It never stops when you get suckered into working from bed

 

BOOK REVIEW: Work’s IntimacyBy Melissa Gregg Polity Press 200 pp; £15 (€17)

AVOID THIS book if you want to enjoy today’s work. Particularly if you are a middle class professional. Even more so if you are female and trying to balance family life with work, and have chosen to work from home or part-time.

You have been suckered. The reality is that whether part-time, full-time, or working from home, you never stop being at work.

Author Melissa Gregg has put flesh on the bones of what many suspected. Under the pretence of giving us the freedom to work at our own pace and wherever we choose, mobile phones, laptops and “tablet” computers have shackled us to our bosses’ will in a way that nothing has done since the treadmill.

New media technologies have exacerbated a tendency among salaried professionals to put work at the heart of daily concerns, often at the expense of other sources of intimacy and fulfilment. This book, though written by a feminist-leaning academic, should scare the pants off male and female readers alike, and trouble the thoughtful tendency among managers.

Take concepts such as “presence bleed” – where firm boundaries between professional and personal identities vanish bit-by-bit as the location and time of work become secondary to the ever-expanding “to do list” and the constant anxieties which accompany it.

The dangers are exacerbated by deteriorating economic conditions as workers are required to produce more for less. Effectively they have become involved in a perpetual auction, bidding ever higher hours and more effort to keep their jobs.

Based on a three-year study of people with non-traditional work patterns, the book throws up interesting reflections on the rapid change in the way many professionals behave in the office and at home.

When the office goes home with you, the working day and night expands. Facebook, Twitter, e-mail and company networks accessible from home quicken the event-reaction cycle, and lead to irrational insecurities and the obsessive exchange of information, merely to be seen to be doing something rather than doing something meaningful.

Most of us have observed some of this in our working lives. “Networking has become an additional form of labour that is required to demonstrate ongoing employability,” according to Melissa Gregg. Keeping your job means re-equipping yourself with every round of technological change, and they are coming faster and faster. And the corollary – seeking reassurance through obsessive networking – has yet to be recognised as what we used to call a workplace hazard.

The author is particularly scathing on the “work/life ruse” which she describes as a sideshow designed by human resources professionals to mask the high performance demands of entrenched work cultures. The “work/life balance” initiatives are bogus, she says. And if you really enjoy your job, why not stick with the fun it brings you?

She has even less time for “coping with stress”, “dealing with change” and “time management” workshops which she says are stratagems to suggest individuals who cannot cope with increasing demands for more work are at personal fault.

There’s much more levelled at HR people, and some of it is good knockabout fun – especially for those of us who have been “downsized” (paid off) and have already spent the proceeds.

Using research carried out between 2007-9 on technology’s impact on the work and home lives of those in the information spheres of the “knowledge economy” in Queensland, Australia, the observations she records are often as telling as the conclusions.

Reporters complain about being required to respond to newsdesk instructions 24/7, but that’s not new. What is new is teachers being expected to respond to “urgent” e-mails from students in the middle of the night over assignments due to be handed in next morning. There’s evidence here that those – particularly women – who choose to work part-time from home to look after their families end up doing two jobs full-time in their anxiety not to be seen as less productive than those who show their faces in the workplace.

Perhaps the most telling point is one that has yet to work its way through the system. The increasing isolation of workers and the “domestication” of the workplace widens the gulf between motivation, incentive and reward for salaried work. The job for life has almost gone and the pension promise of security in old age is daily being diminished.

The self-directed employee of the future is becoming less susceptible to the “ties that bind” their labour to the employer, and to tackle that, I suggest we may have to summon the reviled HR “suits” for help, as employers will still need people to work for them, and spreadsheets are unlikely to throw up the answers.

Useful though this book is, I’m not sure whether the intimacy in the title is fully delivered. It is a tad too academically written to convey its arguments to a wider audience with the impact they deserve.

But on reading it, I understood properly for the first time why so many of us like cooking and “house makeover” TV programmes. They show us real work, with a beginning, middle and end, few interruptions from above, and a tangible outcome. That’s how work should be.


Kieran Fagan is a freelance writer