Work's Intimacy

September 15, 2011

In a lively and compelling read, Melissa Gregg examines the impact of technologies on the work and lifestyles of employees in the knowledge economy. This book covers a lot of ground in a relatively slim volume, and considers mobile working; part-time and contract working; online team interactions; the use of social networking; online branding; and the implications of work being done in the home environment.

Times Higher Education readers may see parallels with their own working lives in the examples cited, and Gregg's observations about how we relate to work may cause readers to reflect on how information and communication technologies have impacted on their own responses to, for example, being able to work remotely and pressures to be ever connected and available.

Gregg draws on a study of 26 professionals working for large organisations in education, government, broadcasting and telecommunications who were interviewed annually over a three-year period. Their experiences of, and responses to, remote working and the use of online technologies are traced in detail throughout. Overall, a picture of expanding work boundaries is presented, but responses to this shift are mixed.

On one hand, many employees enjoyed the freedoms of remote working and embraced technologies that allowed them to connect to work at different times and places. On the other, concerns are raised for employee well-being as a result of pressures and tensions between work and non-work activities. For example, remote workers often feel the need to demonstrate their work presence by rapid response to email; part-timers work outside contracted hours to keep up with developments in the workplace; and attempts are made to conceal work being done at home from other family members. Gregg also shows some workers struggling to keep up with developments in technology - including, ironically, some designed to save them time.

Although for those in environments characterised by short-term contracts and job insecurity, these behaviours may have been a survival strategy, interestingly many participants took personal responsibility for their expanded work boundaries, arguing that it was their choice to take on additional work and to work outside scheduled times. This underlines the value that employees place on having some control over their working lives, and may demonstrate their willingness to obtain this control in exchange for extra time spent working.

Gregg, however, suggests that these professional workers are in some senses collaborators in their own exploitation, and explores what she terms the "magnetism" of mobile technology and the "seductive convenience" of remote working. She argues that the tendency of professional workers to put work at the "heart of their daily concerns" is not new, but what this study shows is that it is encouraged and exacerbated by new media technologies.

Ultimately, some parts of the book work better than others, and some chapters are more focused and present stronger arguments about the relationship between technology, work and lifestyles.

Nonetheless, Gregg makes a valuable contribution to our knowledge of this important and developing field by providing rich data and insights from groups of workers other than the self-employed "portfolio workers" who are often depicted to be at the forefront of the new economy. It will be of use to students of cultural studies and to those interested in the changing context of work and the implications for relationships with colleagues, organisations and in society more generally. Moreover, it is an engaging read that will chime with the experiences of academics and many other professional workers.

Work's Intimacy

By Melissa Gregg. Polity, 218pp, £45.00 and £14.99. ISBN 97807456502 and 50289. Published 5 August 2011.

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