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<nettime> Re: No-Collar
andrew ross on Fri, 27 Dec 2002 20:30:24 +0100 (CET)


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<nettime> Re: No-Collar


My book, No-Collar: The Humane Workplace and Its Hidden Costs has just
been published by Basic Books.  It is based on eighteen months of
ethnographic study of two Internet workplaces (Razorfish and 360hiphop)
from 2000 to 2002.  I've included a Q&A which the publisher customarily
requires of authors (a genre unto itself) to give Nettimers a sense,
albeit a publicist's sense, of the book.  Needless to say, the nettime
list was an important backdrop while I was doing research for, and writing
the book.

1.  How did you first become interested in the theories and practice of
the New Economy workplace?

I had been a Silicon Alley watcher for several years, and had written a
few articles on the development of the new media industries. Increasingly,
it occurred to me that the most important story about these companies–the
nature of labor in the workplaces--was being sidelined by the Internet
gold rush. The press had shown some early interest in the maverick ethos
of work organization and employee conditions, but follow-the-money stories
about young entrepreneurs very quickly came to dominate all media
attention. No one had done a close analysis of the workplaces from the
point of view of employees themselves, and my hunch was that this angle
would be lost to history in the event of an economic downturn. I think I
was right, and indeed, the window of opportunity to do my study proved to
be even tighter than I expected.
  

2.  What did you expect to find through your research? Did you think
employees would overall be positive or negative about their workplaces?
										
	At the time I made the decision to approach my companies, there
were two schools of thought. One accepted the uncommonly flattering claims
about these workplaces–they were a workers paradise, where employees
enjoyed freedoms and rewards that were virtually unheard of in the
corporate world.  And it's certainly true that the stories I was hearing
from employees suggested that they had found the workplace equivalent of
the Big Rock Candy Mountains.  The other, more skeptical, school of
thought saw nothing but a con job.  The permissive workplace and the
autonomy given to employees was just one more management ploy-- to extract
long working hours and maximum enthusiasm from an impressionable and
vulnerable workforce. Several decades of corporate history suggested that
the latter view would prevail.

	My task was to put these preconceptions aside and find out how
employees themselves judged their workplaces.  To be accountable to the
task, I had to be as agnostic as possible from the outset.  Above all, I
wanted to get a feel for what a good job was, at the turn of the
millennium, and so, in addition to my two companies, I interviewed widely
throughout the Internet industries.

3.  What were the most surprising things you found talking to New Economy
employees?

Probably the overall consistency of the responses. Though most of the
employees were in their twenties or early thirties, they were still
remarkably diverse in their life and work experiences–from newly minted
college graduates to seasoned ex-bohemians, from MBA straightshooters to
arty eccentrics.  Even so, I found a lot of agreement in the stories that
I collected.  What they prized most was not the prospect of fast money, or
the memory of stock options that had withered on the vine.  Much more
common was nostalgia for an irresistible work environment which they
feared they may never enjoy again in their lives as employees.  Almost
universally, this had been experienced as a Saturnalian kind of
circumstance, where management ceded a goodly amount of power to rank and
file employees to develop their own initiatives.  "Workers behaving as if
they are truly free and truly human" one employee observed, "are a big
threat to corporations, and you don't need an MBA to figure that out."  
On the other hand, there was also a good deal of awareness that this
balance of power was likely to be short-lived, and that the reforms were
too utopian to be lasting.

4.  Did any part of the idyllic new economy job description turn out to be
true?

Yes, at least in the companies I focused on, which were among the best.
The work tasks were stimulating, creative, and challenging--"work you just
couldn't help doing,"as one employee described it.  Employees were treated
like adults, released from the indignity of steady supervision, and given
near-maximum control over their time. Compensation was ample, and the
permissive workplace was designed, both physically and philosophically, to
chase off the blues.  These firms offered the personal independence of the
self-employed, plus all the benefits and monthly paychecks that come with
a regular job, and so their employees often spoke of having the best of
both worlds.  But for each of these benefits, there were also hidden
costs. Features that appeared to be healthy advances in corporate
democracy could turn into trapdoors that opened on to a bottomless
70-hour-plus work week.  Employee self-management could result in the
abdication of accountability on the part of real managers, and an unfair
shouldering of risk and responsibilities on the part of individuals.  
Flattened organizations could mean that the opportunities for promotion
dried up, along with layers of protection to shield employees from raw
exposure to market forces.  A strong company culture was an emotional
salve in good times, but could turn into a trauma zone in times of crisis
and layoffs.  Partial ownership, or stakeholding, in the form of stock
options, could give employees an illusory sense of power sharing, rudely
shattered when they encountered the unilateralism of executive
decision-making in lay-offs and office closures.
						
5.  What about now when the dot-com's all seem to have gone bust? Does
this bear out the idea that they were flawed workplaces, or is that a
separate issue altogether?

The main company in my study–-Razorfish-–was only recently acquired, after
turning in a profit for the last three quarters. The other
company–360hiphop–was acquired, twice, and its employees are still part of
the larger Viacom organization. Nonetheless, the financialization of the
economy (and of the workplace) has taken a heavy toll on jobs, and the
Internet industry sector has shrunk considerably. This has led,
inevitably, to the widespread perception that the workplace idyll of the
New Economy was only possible in boom times, that it was a pricey
indulgence rather than a reasonable expectation of all employees.  On this
line of thinking, let me quote from an employee: "It's like saying we can
only have good things, like womens' rights or human rights, if you are
affluent, and then you put a price on these things, or you see them as
toys that get handed out only when there's enough to go around."  This
employee believed that a gratifying job should be a matter of justice ,
and not a fringe benefit of the right kind of education, or a reward for a
lucky throw of the Nasdaq dice.  Yet in no way did she perceive the
speculative economy to be "just," and recognized that it rewarded
individual risk-taking with feelgood benefits and not with protection for
all, or democratic control over the enterprise.  So, while it may be
tempting to imagine how these work reforms might have proceeded apart from
the indulgent climate of binge capitalism, this is not how it happened.  
But that is not say that this cannot or should not happen under some
alternative economic arrangement more sympathetic to creating even better
workplaces.

6.  How did you end up choosing to do your research at 360hiphop and
Razorfish? Were the leadership of both companies happy to have you there
or afraid of what you might find?

Quite simply, they had the best reputation in their respective sectors as
places to work. Among the big Internet consultancies, Razorfish was famous
for its company culture.  It was supposed to be the most
employee-friendly, and it recruited the best and the brightest.  Among the
content companies, 360hiphop had a similar renown–topnotch writers,
recruited at the top of their game from the music and media industries to
work together to try to fulfil the political promise of hip hop.  In both
cases, managers welcomed my presence in the workplace, and I was given a
desk and a lot of access to employees, projects, and meetings.  I think it
was assumed that the companies would learn something from my ethnography,
which could be applied in some way to the work organization.  It was also
expected that, since I was there for a long spell, I would be more
accountable than a snapshot journalist working on a three-day deadline.

7.  Some practices of the new economy workplace spread to other industries
during the 1990s-for example, many companies adopted casual Fridays or
flexible work hours. But now those same companies are becoming much more
conservative, going back to "the old way" of doing business. What does
this mean for the future of work? Are we moving further away from ideal
jobs for everyone?

In any recession, corporate managers are going to be actively looking for
concessions and sacrifices on the part of their employees, so there is a
vested interest in believing that the clock can be turned back.  Rather
than a backlash, however, I think what have seen is a normalization of
many of the features of the New Economy workplace. They are no longer
celebrity items, just part and parcel of the continuing march of
informality into all aspects of our lives. From a technological point of
view, the increasing adoption of Web-based networking to carry out all
kinds of work within firms necessarily means that decision-making is being
decentralized and pushed out to edge of organizations.  Plus you have a
whole generation of employees out there who are looking to duplicate what
they were weaned on. It will be difficult to "keep them down on the farm."

8.  Please explain why you feel the dot-com workplace was a step backward
toward days of yore when artisans and craftsmen were highly valued members
of society.

In most workplaces, information technology is used for the surveillance of
employees, and to speed up their work tempo. In these new workplaces, the
machine was not seen as an impersonal taskmaster, but as a personal tool
to be used in versatile ways. As a result of the potential for Web-based
work, many saw these conditions as ripe for some kind of revival of the
pre-corporate age of craft. There was much talk about "digital artisans,"
whose trade was highly skilled and self-governed, and for whom there was a
steep market demand. Those with the knowhow would belong to a new labor
aristocracy, blessed with a strong hand in bargaining over the supply and
price of their services. Many employees, especially the technologists,
were aware of the historical analogy, though they distrusted it.  In the
digital age, their knowledge could be transferred, siphoned off, or else
outsourced much more easily than in the nineteenth century heyday of the
craft artisan.  In fact, there was an acute awareness of a race against
technology. Almost overnight, software upgrades could severely cut into
the value of an employee's knowledge or skill base. So too, there was a
"silicon ceiling" which drastically affects the employability of older
technologists who have not made their move into management positions.

9.  What lessons about work and people can be learned from the new economy
workplace? Is it still relevant today in our somewhat post-dot-com world?

       There is a laundry list, in the book, of principles and ideas that
appeared to be steps forward. In many cases, I also detail the hidden
costs. The bigger picture, however, is that my book is describing the
growth of a new kind of work mentality that I call No-Collar. It did not
spring forth, fully-formed, from the forehead of the digital economy.  I
show how it drew on several lines of genealogical descent in the postwar
period (and even earlier) to form a distinct industrial personality before
it was absorbed, only half-digested, into the mainstream.  My book
documents the adolescent growth of that personality, and its maturity will
take different forms, yet to be witnessed.  One feature, for example, that
I dwell on at length is "the industrialization of bohemia."  My study
showed how companies tried to make a semi-industrial process out of the
work habits and noncomformist routines of the bohemian artist or
intellectual.  These habits and attitudes were once marginal to the
mainstream economy, but they moved much closer to the center during the
New Economy.  No-Collar is the emerging profile of work in the knowledge
industries, and my book was really an attempt to document what I call the
Early Urban Prototype of this profile.
 
10.  Is the experience of the new economy workplace unique to America? Is
there anywhere else in the world that went through this radical change in
the concept of work? How might other countries apply these lessons to
their job creation efforts?

Some of my research was done in London, where similar patterns were
evident. Most large cities on the global financial map had New Economy
pockets with a cognate mix of features and employees.  More exportable,
however, is the idea of a corporate organization that was assembled with
minimal starch, and maximum flex, to turn on a dime, and thereby reinvent
itself from quarter to quarter.  In many New Economy firms , constant
alterations of business strategy, company identity, and work orientation
undermined any sense of operating in a stable industrial environment.  
This fluidity was quite unlike employment in a traditional organization,
governed by formal work rules and rituals, and by a common understanding
of products, markets, and performance criteria.  Firms like Razorfish
morphed from one form of business organization to another in response to
market opportunities that opened and closed with starling rapidity. This
is likely to become much more common in the global economy.
 
11.  If people were to take just one thing away from reading your book,
what should that be?

Be careful what you wish for.  When work becomes sufficiently humane, we
are likely to do far too much of it, and it usurps an unacceptable portion
of our lives.  For decades, labor advocates have been asking for less
alienation on the job, and for a humane work environment that offers
personal gratification. Corporate America has been more willing to grant
this, while taking away much of the job security and benefit blanket that
came along with a corporate job in the Cold War period.  We shouldn't have
to choose between a humane and just workplace.

12.  What makes NO-COLLAR different from all the other books about the new
economy out there?

My book is a "residential study" of work conditions inside New Economy
companies in their prime. It tries to draw some lessons about the future
of modern work from empirical observation of employees in New Economy
companies.  Most books about the New Economy have focused on the
boom-and-bust speculation, or on the technologies themselves.  No-Collar
presumes that the bona fide influence of the New Economy will be on
employees' expectations of work conditions, not on the nature of
investment or business opportunities.  Even during the boom, most Internet
business models were targets of scorn.  The more telling story, in my
opinion, will be about the legacy of the kind of work environment which
No-Collar documents in detail.






-- 
Andrew Ross
Professor and Director
Program in American Studies
New York University
285 Mercer Street, 8th Floor
New York, NY 10003

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