In his Imagined Futures, Jens Beckert offers a sociology of expectations which reconstructs the role of imagination in how people orientate themselves to the future. From pg 9:
If actors are orientated toward the future and outcomes are uncertain, then how can expectations be define? What are expectations under conditions of uncertainty? That is the central question to which this book seeks an answer. If we take uncertainty seriously instead of conflating it with risk, it becomes evident that expectations cannot be probabilistic assessments of future states of the world. Under genuine uncertainty, expectations become interpretative frames that structure situations through imaginaries of future states of the world and of causal relations.
There are a few reasons I’m reading this. But I’m particularly interested in making sense of how users imagine platforms and what this means for their expectations of how their use of the platform will bring about certain ends. The role of the future in platform imaginaries might not seem self-evidently important but Beckert’s analysis can be used to make sense of how possibility is conveyed to users and how this in turn shapes their use.
In Work’s Intimacy, Melissa Gregg pays much attention to the challenge faced by part-time workers in knowledge industries. Many of her participants within this category reported regularly finding themselves checking e-mail outside of their paid hours, something they saw as necessary to ensure they were ‘prepared’. In this way, ‘catch up days’ become an unpaid accompaniment to the hours part-time workers are actually paid for. These activities were often explained in terms of personal autonomy and choice, sacrificing free time in the name of professional performance on work days. But as Gregg writes on loc 1273:
Even though their language speaks of personal preference and exceptionalism, their consistent stories point to a clear problem in the way part-time work is recognized in information and communication jobs. No formal policies existed for them to manage online obligations; nor were there guidelines for appropriate response times. Employees operated on the basis of vague and self-imposed ideas about what management would or wouldn’t expect. In each case, there was simply no framework for discussing how part-time work was repositioned in light of the widespread reliance on online technologies in team-based office cultures (see chapter 4). Technology served to confirm, when it did not also accelerate the temporality of the workplace. Improvised and makeshift arrangements left many part-timers feeling apologetic for their so-called “flexible” positions.
I agree this is a failure of management. But it’s also a failure of colleagues, in terms of what we might call chronoimagination (recognising that someone else’s temporal experience might be different to yours) and chronosolidarity (identifying a common interest in sustainable temporalities of work in spite of these differences). Chronosolidarity is easy when people are obviously in a similar position to yourself, though small communicative acts of reassurance and understanding are no less valuable for the fact they come easily. But the challenge comes when temporal positions work rather differently, too easily giving rise to the assumption someone else’s working life is easier or perhaps not giving rise to thought at all.
Under working conditions which are informal, flexible/precarious and desynchronised, chronoimagination and chronosolidarity should be regarded as important factors in shaping the experience of work. Doing so should not blind us to the structural origins of these problems, such that they are reproduced to interpersonal challenges susceptible to a technical fix. But we need to recognise the imagination relating to converging/diverging experiences of time which we bring to bear, or fail to, in our dealings with others who are differently placed in relation to organisational hierarchies.
One of the crucial ideas for my new book are the temporal implications of the escalation dynamics which characterise social media platforms. In his Social Media in Academia, George Veletsianos identifies precisely the dynamic that interests me. From loc 834:
[R]emaining visible on a social networking and fast-moving platform such as Twitter means that one has to share often and frequently, or else one’s voice and presence are diluted in the sea of information that is already present.
The problem is that efforts to resist dilution of voice and presence, the eternal struggle to be ‘heard above the din’ as Dave Beer puts it, leads to an escalation of the activity necessary for others to achieve the same objective. My suggestion is that seeking to be visible, if not necessarily a function of using the platform itself, will always tend to lead to an increase in the activity required to ensure visibility.
The temporal commitment involved in this activity might be individually trivial but it can prove to be aggregatively consequential, particularly if the same dynamic obtains across participation in multiple platforms. The result might be a straight-forward time squeeze, it might be rushing to finish other activities, it might be multi-tasking and it might be a diffuse state of perpetual distraction. But it has consequences for our experience of time.
A weird little snippet I came across from Marissa Mayer, former Google high-flyer and now head of Yahoo, on how to avoid burnout by “empowering” yourself to “work really hard for a long period of time”. Find one thing you absolutely refuse to miss then completely subordinate the rest of your life to your work, safe in the knowledge that you have ‘your rhythm’:
Avoiding burnout isn’t about getting three square meals or eight hours of sleep. It’s not even necessarily about getting time at home. I have a theory that burnout is about resentment. And you beat it by knowing what it is you’re giving up that makes you resentful. I tell people: Find your rhythm. Your rhythm is what matters to you so much that when you miss it you’re resentful of your work. I had a young guy, just out of college, and I saw some early burnout signs. I said, “Think about it and tell me what your rhythm is.” He came back and said, “Tuesday night dinners. My friends from college, we all get together every Tuesday night and do a potluck. If I miss it, the whole rest of the week I’m like, ‘I’m just not going to stay late tonight. I didn’t even get to do my Tuesday night dinner.’ ” So now we know that Nathan can never miss Tuesday night dinner again. It’s just that simple. You’re going to be so much more productive the rest of the week if you get that.
One of Google’s most famous perks is the ‘20% rule’, in which staff are allowed a portion of time to work on their own projects. However as Eric Schmidt and his co-author explain in How Google Works, this isn’t a matter of time as such. From loc 3210:
This is the power of 20 percent time, 181 the Google program whereby engineers can spend 20 percent of their time working on whatever they choose. Twenty percent time has spawned a host of great products—Google Now, Google News, transit information on Google Maps, and many more—but it is generally misunderstood. It’s not about time, it’s about freedom. 182 The program doesn’t mean that the campus turns into summer camp every Friday, with all the engineers goofing off in (hopefully) creative ways. In fact, 20 percent time is more like 120 percent time, since it often occurs on nights and weekends. But it can also be stored up and used all at once—Jonathan had one product manager take a summer to work on a 20 percent project. Regardless of when you take your 20 percent time, assuming it doesn’t get in the way of doing your regular job, no one can stop you from doing it. Twenty percent time is a check and balance on imperial managers, a way to give people permission to work on stuff they aren’t supposed to work on. It helps bring to life the Steve Jobs maxim that “you have to be run by ideas, not hierarchy.” 183 And we have found that when you trust people with freedom, they generally do not waste it on extravagant pies in the sky. You don’t get software engineers writing operas—they write code.
This could be reframed as a strategy to maximally extract value from human capital: expecting staff to pursue projects, on their own initiative and in their own time, which are owned by the corporation.
An interesting empirical question: what’s it like to be someone at Google who doesn’t want to do this? Are such people filtered out during the hiring process? If not, are there sanctions for non-compliance? For just wanting to do your job as its presented to you?
Later in the book I found this paragraph, loc 3408:
While we believe in paying extraordinary people extraordinarily well for extraordinary success, we don’t pay people for successful 20 percent projects. Dan Ratner may have received very generous compensation for being part of the transformational Street View product team, but he didn’t get anything directly tied to his work on trikes. 197 We don’t provide any monetary incentive for 20 percent projects for the simple reason that we don’t need to: It may sound corny, but the reward comes from the work itself. Several studies have shown that extrinsic rewards don’t encourage creativity, and in fact hinder it, by turning an inherently rewarding endeavor into a money-earning chore
I was interested to learn that Netflix has a seemingly enlightened approach to the working and holiday patterns of their employees:
Since 2004, Netflix employees have taken as many vacation days as they’ve wanted. They have the freedom to decide when to show up for work, when to take time off, and how much time it will take them to get the job done. As far as I can tell, this hasn’t hurt Netflix one bit. Since instituting the policy, it’s grown its market cap to over $51 billion.
Just because there’s flexibility at Netflix doesn’t mean it lacks accountability. Employees have to keep their managers in the loop, and they’re expected to perform at a very high level. High performance is so ingrained into Netflix culture that they reward adequate performance with a generous severance package.
Netflix employees have unlimited vacation because no one is tracking their time. Instead of micromanaging how people get their jobs done, the leadership focuses only on what matters—results. They’ve found that giving people greater autonomy creates a more responsible culture. Without the distraction of stifling rules, employees are more focused and productive.
However I take issue with framing this as an antidote to ‘workaholism’, as the author of this piece does. Netflix has previously been described as having an ingrained ‘culture of fear’ in which people are fired for their mistakes and many leave each year. Is this a paradox? Or is the enlightened approach to working and holiday patterns likely to be connected to the culture of fear?
I suspect so and would be keen to analyse this in terms of an organisational response to the demands placed on individual employees: they’re encouraged to use their own reflexivity to structure their working life because the demands placed upon them are so onerous and diverse that to try and dictate ways of working would prove counter-productive.