Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Bonus Culture

One of the legacies of Postmodernism in design is the conformist nonconformism of the modern office. Not everywhere is as wacky as the Googleplex, with its bean bags and micro-scooters, but even law firms now indulge in funky colour schemes and perplexing art-prints, while ironic toys and mugs clutter desks. The epitome of this is found in high-tech, where even brand names are self-consciously PoMo, with lower caps and exclamation marks. I've long thought that homeworking could be seen in this light - as a sort of ironic form of working. This perhaps explains why homeworking is often discussed as if it were a fashion accoutrement. Though there are practical arguments both for and against, its popularity seems to wax and wane for other reasons.

Recently, Yahoo! decided to end homeworking for its employees. The move is clearly defensive - a circling of the wagons. According to Marissa Mayer, the CEO: "We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together". If staff at Yahoo (enough with the exclamation mark) are demoralised, this will be incidental to their place of work. The business has been failing for years. The suspicion is that the ultimatum is a way of getting rid of some dead wood, though the move has led to think-pieces (devoid of much thought) questioning whether homeworking is in retreat. The issue is not whether homeworking is appropriate or effective (clearly it is in many cases), but what governs the change in policy to either implement or abandon it?

Among the witless blather on the subject, there is an inadvertant clue in a piece by the relentlessly self-promoting Heather McGregor: "In times of crisis, I may need more face-time with my team, not less; when the recession hit us in 2008/9, one of the first things I asked was for people who had been home-working to return to the office". She doesn't explain why crises require more face-time. A crisis management meeting may be necessary to quickly review a situation and refocus resources, but you'd want to keep this to a minimum so that people then get on with addressing the crisis. Talking can quickly become an alternative to doing.

What these two statements show is that CEOs look to reassert their power when a business becomes vulnerable. Like reinforcing the dress code or being strict about arrival times, it's about showing who's in charge. This a tactic with a long pedigree - witness the stock tales about new military commanders who re-establish discipline - and may well prove effective. My point is that it reveals something about the nature of homeworking, namely that it is a power commodity, a means by which power is exchanged within the employer-employee relationship. In good times, some power (a privilege or exemption to a rule) is given to employees. In tough times, that power is taken back.

In some cases it is clear that the absence of homeworking as a privilege relates more to the employee's own assessment of its value. According to the Head of British Vogue: "We have come to believe that working at home is a completely adequate alternative to showing our face in the office. But it's not". Allowing that Ugly Betty is a caricature, I don't think it should be a surprise that in an environment where visible networking is crucial, "showing your face" is an important political act. If you find (as many do) that working from home allows you to "get things done", then this implies that what happens in the office is often inimical to productive work, even allowing for tacit exchange and the other benefits of face-time. The flip-side of homeworking, and the PoMo influence on the office environment, is the growth of the "home as a factory, office as a club" trope. This shows that both homeworking and office time can become forms of privilege.

It is also clear from the descriptions of homeworking and the advice on best practice that this is assumed to be a largely middle-class thing, where a dedicated space (a home office) is possible and human contact is maintained by popping out for lunch and coffee. Most personal testimony in the media is from self-absorbed journos, which is hardly representative. I've even seen claims that call-centre staff (i.e. working-class jobs) cannot easily be allowed to work from home as "the cost of linking secure databases to thousands of houses stands as a considerable obstacle", which is technological nonsense. The issue is clearly one of discipline and control, which is a feature of the job not of the work itself.

The chief value of homeworking is not the lack of distraction, or being able to work in pyjamas, but the avoidance of the daily commute. Commuting is a key exchange between employer and employee. Businesses cluster together because of the efficiencies and economies of scale this provides. The downside is that it drives up the cost of labour in the vicinity. Commuter transport systems expand the area from which labour can be recruited, so pushing down wages. The quid pro quo for the employee is access to cheaper housing - i.e the further you commute, the bigger a house you can afford.

Homeworking represents a shift in the balance of power. When middle-class jobs are already well-paid, it becomes advantageous to some workers to "commute" extra pay into extra time (though there may also be cash savings on transport costs). Homeworking is a bonus paid in time. When the terms of trade change, and business has the greater advantage, homeworking is reduced without any compensation in higher wages.

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