Work's Intimacy

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Citation: Melissa Gregg (2011) Work's Intimacy.


Tagged: Sociology (RSS) NatematiasGenerals (RSS), digital labor (RSS), affective labor (RSS), telecommuting (RSS), telepresence (RSS), family (RSS), sociology (RSS), ethnography (RSS), new media (RSS)


How is online technology participating in changes in the experience of work and home, and what have been the consequences of flexible arrangements that allow work from home? In Work's Intimacy Melissa Gregg takes up this question through ethnographic research with Australian professionals.


In this study, Gregg carries out ethnographic research with 26 participants at different levels of management hierarchy at 4 employers. The employees were also interviewed annually, in the period from 2007-2009.

Introduction: Work's Intimacy

What have been the consequences of the flexible work arrangements marketed by technology providers, asks Gregg in the introduction, especially among ordinary office workers connected in "network society"[1]?

Gregg argues that salaried professionls have an "increasingly intimate relationship" with work, supported by new media technologies something she calls presence bleed as "communication platforms and devices allow work to invade spaces and times that were once less susceptible to its presence" (2). In parallel, "the jobs themselves are subject to function creep" (2).

The book also discusses the reasons that professionals engage in work out of the home, linking those reasons to broader themes in society. One trend is the idea of workers who "take responsibility for their actions and enjoy this as a form of freedom" [2][3].

The book also addresses the idea of work-life balance, an idea that Gregg critiques from several angles. Many professionals may see work as more satisfying and achievable than home and leisure[4]. The work-life balance idea assumes that work is alienating (in a Marxist sense)[5]. Among Gregg's participants, "professional work generates forms of pleasure and accomplishment that rival the markers of identity favored in previous historical formations" (5). Gregg argues that technology platforms are supporting the resulting out-of-work hour, providing their justification, and supplying the metrics that reinforce this broader shift(6).

Gregg offers a history of "networking" with colleagues, in context of the challenges of visibility introduced by telepresent work. Gregg describes self-help manuals like Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People[6], which supported "the deliberate confusion of friendship and business interests" to gain a reputation of likeability and gain job security. Other models include Whyte's "well-rounded man" (loyal but not overworking) and "organization man" (who overworked and set up a home office to do work from home) [7]. Another model is the "white collar" worker, who is more autonomous and therefore controlled invisibly rather than materially [8] Finally, Alan Liu's "Laws of Cool" describe knowledge workers, whose networking activity supports "an even more precarious knowledge that has to be re-earned with every new technological change, business cycle, or downsizing in one's own life" (Liu 2004, qtd in Gregg)[9]. In particular, the rhetoric of finding fulfilling work supports the idea of a self-directed person who believes in the work without being ordered to do it [10]. In this context:

"self-monitoring and individual goal-setting become disciplinary techniques by which employees engage in the 'deep acting' required to implement management tenets"(13).

Gregg also describes emotional labor between employees (in contrast to emotion work with cusomters, as described by Hochschild in The Managed Heart[11]). In this context, "networking is an additional form of labor that is required to demonstrate ongoing employability" (13). Networking, rather than receiving orders, becomes a way to generate the next project (Boltanski & Chiapello 2005:110)[12]. This drive towards networking is a major motivation for the bleed of work into people's lives, argues Gregg.

One form of evidence that Gregg offers to reveal these issues is the "ordinary office" of knowledge workers, whether those offices are at a workplace or at a home. Through conversation and observation, Gregg tells the stories of professionals as they experience something very different from the oranization man, something more flexible[13] and more intimate [14]: "Work's Intimacy intends to be an indictment, if not also an elegy to the experience of 'presence bleed'" (19).

Part I: The Connectivity Imperative: Business Responses to New Media

Selling the Flexible Workplace: The Creative Economy and New Media Fetishism

In this chapter, Gregg situates the idea of flexible work in broader political and economic currents in Brisbane, and in Queensland more broadly, as it pushed a "smart state" policy by supporting infrastructure the arts and culture, with Brisbane promoting "lifestyle city" and "creative city" slogans and a landscape of cycle paths, night life, and public transportation (24). In parallel, the Queensland University of Technology, with regional funding, created a "Creative Industries Precinct" and an "urban village"[15][16]. Gregg's chapter offers an overview of the urban planning dimension of this brief boom, which collapsed in 2009.

  • The smart state inspired by Florida's The Rise of the Creative Class[17], aimed at attracting talented and wealthy workers. Gregg examines this trend through Brisbane-centered PR.
  • The Brisbame Boom: changing demographics signaled by growing luxury markets and real estate
  • Frequent flyers: entrepreneurs, whose work style becomes a culture and not just a profession[18]. Many of the ads focused on all the non-work places where work could be done.
  • Unlimited work: media that promoted "the normalization of online, mobile work cultures" through how-tos and product ads (33)
  • Workstyle: media that focused on personal practices and technologies of efficient self-management (e.g. Mann's Getting Things Done). Gregg argues that "mobile technologies have been central to the 'industrialization of bohemia'" promoted by Florida (37).
  • Creativity's Limits: Gregg notes that the idea of creative cultures relies on a large invisible workforce supporting the infrastructure of this economy

Working from Home

In this chapter, Gregg describes the reasons salaried employees give for working from home, connecting those reasons to wider debates on this practice. Gregg argues that "it is the enhanced productivity of working from home that many participants claim to be key" -- home becomes a place where they can be even more committed to work than the workplace. This view exists as a "double standard" especially for women, who also choose to work at home so they can integrate their work life with family (40). The chapter, which describes the working arrangements of a radio journalist and a foreign correspondent (a traditional remote working position) settling into a single place for the first time, typical of the "mid-career majority" who regularly if occasionally work from home even if their company has no official policy (46).

  • Lack of formal policies of technology infrastructure for people working at home (only one of the companies had formal policies or support)
    • (this detail is key to understanding the entire book. Experiences may vary for employees with more formal support Natematias (talk) 23:11, 28 March 2015 (UTC))
  • Work from home as an escape from office culture and politics
  • The performance of competence through digital interactions and email
  • Ergonomic and workplace comfort challenges
  • Dedicated work rooms/spaces versus work in shared home spaces
  • Children helping with tech support
  • Family agreements about agreed non-work time at home (45)
  • Mixed part-time work and parenting, something many parents felt grateful for.
  • "Improvised and makeshift arrangements" around work practices that "left many part-timers feeling apologetic for their so-called 'flexible' position" (52).

Across participants, "keeping in touch" was an accepted assumed requirement about the nature of the work, so much so that many participants didn't see themselves as doing work from home, especially work on email. Email and other preparation work was often seen as a normal thing to do from home, in an effort to avoid having email overwhelm them when they arrived at work and start the week "on the back foot" (48). In this sense work from home "allow[ed] workers to feel 'mentally prepared' before arriving at the office on a normal day" (48). Since email was not part of their official workload, workers did not see it as work. Another evidence of this was the catch-up day, additional days of work that employees used to monitor and write emails. One participant described co-work with her husband as relaxing: "the home is a site for various kinds of labor, care, and leisure, often in close proximity" (49).

Gregg concludes by noting that "for women, the home has never been synonymous with leisure", and that "for women engaged in professional careers today, it is the site for many competing forms of physical, administrative, and affective labor" (53). While the presence of men in the home might offer hope for fairer division of labor in the home, Gregg notes that it was the exception.

Part-time Precarity

This chapter moves from salaried employees (who traditionally trade away hourly wages for job security), to part-time workers and "white-collar apprentices", who are expected to offer loyalty "without the reciprocal obligation of security and recognition of service" (57):

  • Interns at the margin of organizations, with little support and poorly defined work (example: intern whose supervisor also controlled her email)
  • smart casuals, part-time workers who have limited, precarious access to official facilitites, and who are expected to be responsive to communications on a full-time basis, who have to borrow passwords from colleagues to access infrastrcture, and worry about losing limited work.
  • lack kof surveillance which led employees to feel undervalued
  • busy as a mode of "accepting work as it arises, fitting jobs around [studies]" perceived by workers as "one of opportunistic momentum geared toward an elusive period when she will be less 'busy'" (63)
  • guilt about not being "plugged in" or not accepting every request they receive

Part II: Getting Intimate: Online Culture and the Rise of Social Networking

To CC: Or Not to CC: Teamwork in Office Culture

In the second part of the book, Gregg explores a concern that "notions of loyalty and service are no longer valued in workplaces that offer only temporary housing for upwardly mobile employees on the lookout for the next big opportunity"[10] (74). In this, Gregg draws substantially from Sennet's work on "the fugitive quality of friendship" and the lost chance to act "as a long-term witness to another person's life" (Sennett 1998:21, qtd in Gregg 73)[19]. In this context, argues Gregg, the idea of "the team becomes hegemonic in office culture due to its effectiveness in erasing the power hierarchies and differential entitlements that clearly remain in large organizations" (74). In particular, the chapter "focses on the social dimensions that are part of the workload for professionals" beyond classic obligations to network, instead focusing on team-building activities, "culture champions", "fun officers," mission statements and other initiatives that Gregg argues enforces intimacy and "develop[s] personal connections by simulating a democratic work environment with shared overall objectives" (75).

Gregg examines the choice to CC or not as a revealing point of tension around team identity and work-from-home practices. Many participants complained about over-emailing from colleagues. Workers in senior roles were able to rise above group conversations or conflicts. Many others made themselves available for email conversations to let others know that they are "a good team player" (81).

Facebook Friends: Security Blankets and Career Mobility

In this chapter (and the preceding one), Gregg describes the role of social networking in employees' lives, from keeping in touch with former coworkers, to building their reputation, and to maintain friendships as work takes them from place to place, using platforms like Facebook outside of the company's IT systems (82). She also describes the replacement of water-cooler conversation in one company with social media (84). In this sense, Facebook is "a security blanket for workers conscious of the need to remain flexible, avvailable, and likable in a dynamic [reputation-based] employment market" (88) [20].

Gregg discusses profile pages and likes as markers of class and taste, informed by the work of Bourdieu[21]. She also describes the various pressures people felt to sign up, as well as the uses they put it to, whether to find sources or to promote their creative work. Gregg argues that this is a kind of "coercive intimacy" (98). The chapter also describes the role of Facebook in cultivating network capital, managing reputation and finding new jobs (98)[22].

Know Your Product: Online Branding and the Evacuation of Friendship

In this chapter, Gregg describes the trend of requiring or encouraging employees to join social media and thereby present some kind of face of the company, from paid publicity positions to college social media internships and "social networking strategy" jobs (102-103). The article covers the rise of the personal brand [23] and corporate links with participatory culture[24] This chapter "shows the effects of social media strategies on those actually providing the enhanced services that organizations were claiming as the winnings of the participatory revolution" (105):

  • additional online obligations added to existing job descriptions
  • company bureaucracies that prevented access to participatory media
  • companies "colonize the very avenues for friendship and solidarity" that otherwise function as "support structures for isolated working conditions"

New online obligations mandated by management (in the case of two journalists) included:

  • monitoring and moderating online discussion
  • promoting their company's interests
  • writing blog posts (with the expectation of blogging from home)
  • Tweeting for the company, including "breaking news" tweets

Gregg argues that especially at times when companies see themselves as responding to new digital market forces, they operate under a "state of exception" where workplace policies and expectations are suspended, especially ideas of the normal working day. Furthermore, certain employees become associated with technological innovation, and become stuck in a cycle of early-adopting in order to maintain their jobs. Gregg describes workers who feel like there is an impossibly large palette of technology they can and need to be learning in their free time in order to keep up. Gregg also notes that young workers felt more of this pressure from management.

For employees in more established positions, new media policies added blogging/PR requirements into employee's lives, adding to the workload and pushing more work out of office hours. As employees were "encouraged to perform her role in dialogue with the public", they sometimes worried that the core of their work was being devalued (112).

Part III: Looking for Love in the Networked Household

Home Offices and Remote Parents

In this section of the book, Gregg describes the reach of the trends described in parts I and II into people's homes, arguing that "beyond the influences of management, technology, or the wider economy, employees themselves appeared increasingly willing to engage in work beyond office hours - often to the detriment of other intimate relationships" (122).

  • 'work spaces in the home. Women with children often worked at the dining table, while men had their own office rooms. Families pruchased multiple computers to avoid competition over using them.
  • partial presence, where people work together in shared space
  • work as the new family, where strong collaborative bonds were developed with remote team members. For many "work was a source of fulfillment that rivaled that of family life. It took priority in daily concerns to the point where other relationships could sometimes be neglected" (131)
  • closing down communication between family members, who are focused on their computers

Long Hours, High Bandwidth: Negotiating Domesticity and Distance

In this chapter, Gregg describes "the performance of love for family" in the workplace through photos, screensavers, and other signs of family life in workers' office spaces (139). She compares these practices with the ways that new media technologies are supporting "a widening number of companions throughout the working day" (138-140):

  • participants described work in similar language to love, with less time for domestic/leisure
  • for mothers, "intimacy with work equates to a kind of reprieve from the demands of other members of the household" (141)
  • partners who didn't acknowledge or appreciate the others' work from home
  • partners who feel timid that their work might be disrupting anothers' leisure
  • partners who struggle to find time together, where "Facebook friends filled in for the domestic intimacy that absent partners couldn't provide" 146
  • partners who communicated during the workday
  • partners' increased knowledge about each others' workday

Gregg argues that a feedback loop exists: work keeps partners away during the day, and online friends occupy peoples' time when they are together (152).

On Call

Finally, Gregg briefly describes the experiences of staff "on call" who keeep the IT infrastructures of work connections running. For these workers, "ordinary activities are rendered precarious" since they could be called at any moment (154). Gregg describes an IT manager moving jobs between universities. This employee had a "one-hour radius" of being within a computer in case something happened. This employee as well as a news producer felt:

  • tethered to technology
  • under pressure to respond to other employees
  • at risk of burnout
  • un-appreciated for on-call work that happened out of hours
  • unpredictability about schedules or interruption

Conclusion: Labor Politics in an Online Workplace: The Lovers vs the Loveless

Gregg concludes with a collection of arguments and reflections on the research:

  • the need for labor politics and collective consciousness about the working conditions and needs of knowledge workers in "brutal working conditions" like an overflowing inbox (166).
  • the problem that workers rarely "count" digital connections as work
  • the need for companies to redefine job descriptions to acknowledge digital connections as work
  • the problematic implications of the "love what you do" narrative

Gregg concludes by arguing that "a labor politics of love must fight this corporatization of intimacy [and] look for visions that advance 'the production of the common and the production of social life' (Hart and Negri 2009: xxii)" (172)[25]

Theoretical and practical relevance:

Gregg's work provides a wide-ranging ethnographic exploration of the impact of "Creative Class" policies in Brisbane, especially in the case of "presence bleed" of work in the home. The book is especially thoughtful in its engagement with literature on affective and immaterial labor in post-fordism.

Notable References

  1. Castells, M. (2011). The rise of the network society: The information age: Economy, society, and culture (Vol. 1). John Wiley & Sons.
  2. Rose, N. (1990). Governing the soul: the shaping of the private self. Taylor & Frances/Routledge. Chicago
  3. Rose, N. (1999). Powers of freedom: Reframing political thought. Cambridge university press.
  4. Hochschild, A. (1997). The time bind. WorkingUSA, 1(2), 21-29.
  5. Adkins, L., & Jokinen, E. (2008). Introduction: Gender, living and labour in the fourth shift. NORA—Nordic Journal of Feminist and Gender Research, 16(3), 138-149.
  6. Carnegie, D. (1936). How to win friends and influence people. Simon and Schuster.
  7. Whyte, W. H. (1956). The organization man. University of Pennsylvania Press.
  8. Mills, C. W. (1951). White Collar: The American middle classes. Oxford University Press.
  9. Liu, A. (2004). The laws of cool: Knowledge work and the culture of information (p. xi). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Boltanski, L., & Chiapello, E. (2005). The new spirit of capitalism. International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society, 18(3-4), 161-188.
  11. Hochschild, Arlie R. (1893) The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling. University of California Press.
  12. Boltanski, L., & Chiapello, E. (2005). The new spirit of capitalism. International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society, 18(3-4), 161-188.
  13. Ross, A. (2009). Nice work if you can get it: Life and labor in precarious times. NYU Press. Chicago
  14. Gill, R., & Pratt, A. (2008). In the social factory? Immaterial labour, precariousness and cultural work. Theory, culture & society, 25(7-8), 1-30.
  15. Klaebe, H. G. (2006). Sharing stories: A social history of the Kelvin Grove Urban Village. Focus Publishing.
  16. Klaebe, H. G., & Foth, M. (2006). Capturing community memory with oral history and new media: The Sharing Stories Project.
  17. Florida, R. L. (2002). The rise of the creative class: and how it's transforming work, leisure, community and everyday life. Basic books.
  18. Turner, F. (2010). From counterculture to cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the rise of digital utopianism. University Of Chicago Press.
  19. Sennet, R. (1998). The corrosion of character. The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism.. Bergen, Norway, Fagbokforlaget Vigmostad & Bjørke AS. Chicago
  20. Solove, D. J. (2007). The future of reputation: Gossip, rumor, and privacy on the Internet. Yale University Press.
  21. Bourdieu, P. (1984). Distinction: A social critique of the judgement of taste. Harvard University Press.
  22. Bradwell, P., & Reeves, R. (2008). Network citizens: Power and responsibility at work. London: Demos.
  23. Peters, T. (1997). The brand called you. Fast Company, 10(10).
  24. Jenkins, H. (2006). Convergence culture: Where old and new media collide. NYU press.
  25. Hardt, M., & Negri, A. (2009). Empire. Harvard University Press.