A home from home…

first_imgThe workplace is the new community – if you have the right job, says StephenOverellHave you heard? Work is the new community. It can give us friends, lovers,identity, purpose, well-being, childcare and dry-cleaning – pretty welleverything you might expect from a community, really – and the idea is goingdown a storm among policy anoraks and employers. “As geographical andclass identities decline, there is little doubt that work is taking on a newcentrality in people’s lives,” says Angela Baron, an adviser to the CIPD. Anxiously trendy companies are keen to daub the workplace with thevocabulary of a mini-society. Instead of a job at internet search engineGoogle, workers are offered ‘the chance to be part of a community of peopledoing meaningful work’. It is not the role so much as belonging that is key;employees are consumers of a collective experience. They can bring theirchildren to work, play roller-hockey, park their scooters and pets in theircubicles, use the gym, take a sauna, have a massage and then tinkle the ivorieson the grand piano when the muse strikes. All very dot-com, of course. But in the wake of 11 September, it was notedthat one of the widespread consequences was a renewed appetite for communityand belonging in Western democracies. Corporate ‘communities’ and ‘families’duly sprang up to plug the gap left by class and location – at least in theminds of some. Allegedly, business briefly became the new home front. “It became clear that, for the first time, businesses – and moreimportantly employees – were under attack,” says Kevin Thomson, founder ofworkingthrough.org, a think-tank set up to probe the implications of theterrorist attack. “Business was the target and employees are now in thefront line.” Such feelings have not lasted. Yet the wider idea – that the workplace istaking on the functions of community – is a fruitful one, chiefly because ithelps make sense of much contemporary fuss concerning life at work. It explainswhy so many social issues are being tackled through the suffix ‘at work’, ascampaign groups target the workplace. Ergo, bullying at work, depression atwork, racism at work. It explains why some employers are acting likequasi-nation states, offering healthcare, eye-tests, playgroups and care forthe elderly. Or quasi spas, with shoulder-massages and anxiety-hotlines. Orquasi valets, with shopping services and someone to feed the cat. Furthermore, it explains why so many executives claim to have little timefor formal authority in how they run their companies and a great belief in thepersuasive power of influence, trust and empathy in motivating staff. Perhaps above all, the work-as-community theory makes a virtue of the factthat many people spend more hours at work than the previous generation. Indeed,for a third of staff, work is the most important thing in their lives. A commoninterest in work between colleagues can, if they get too interested, easilybecome a common interest in being edgy at home. Is the supposed new centrality of work a good thing for society? Accordingto Richard Reeves, author of Happy Mondays, it is nothing to grumble about.”If people get more out of work than they do from home, then fair enough.If we accept work that is dull, demeaning – work that is simply a ransom paidfor the hostage of our ‘free time’ – then we are allowing alienation toremain.”1 Most commentators, however, see the decline of community as something tomourn. Robert Putnam, the sociologist who wrote Bowling Alone: the Decline andRevival of American Community, is in no doubt that contemporary attitudes towork wreck society, rather than re-create it in an office setting. “Work,with its gruelling hours and traffic-snarled commutes, is taking over our livesand depriving us of time with family, friends and community,” he wrote.2 Arlie Russell Hochschild, in her book The Time Bind3, suggests the reasonsbehind the compulsion to work are rarely simple. She claims people are workinglonger and harder not because employers are demanding and inflexible, butbecause employees find greater satisfaction at work than where they live. Workaffords order and a degree of stability, with teamwork evolving into areplacement for family relationships. At home lies dysfunction and uncertainty,so people create pressure at work as a means of escape. If that sounds a bit far-fetched, Richard Sennett, a sociologist at theLondon School of Economics, takes the opposite view: work is inspiring alonging for traditional communities. In The Corrosion of Character, he writes:”One of the unintended consequences of modern capitalism is that it hasstrengthened the value of place, aroused a longing for community. All theemotional conditionsÉ in the workplace animate that desire: the uncertaintiesof flexibility, the absence of deeply-rooted trust and commitment, the superficialityof teamwork; most of all the spectre of failing to make something of oneself inthe world, to ‘get a life’ through one’s work. All these conditions impelpeople to look for some other scene of attachment and depth.”4 While employers may enjoy thinking of their companies as communities forreasons of managerial productivity, there is a whiff of elitism involved. Itcould only ever really apply to a tiny section of the professional middleclass, whose employers provide so-called concierge services. Work may well bemore important than it used to be to a few, who live in cities, work inoffices, feel little identification with physical communities and expectfulfilment from their job. For most, work is a means to an end, as ever it was.If you knock off the fitness centres, childcare and cat feeding from thelist of ‘social services’ being offered by a few employers, it is alsodebatable whether work hasn’t always been fundamental to ideas of community.Emile Durkheim, one of the founders of modern sociology, writing in 1933,argued: “Social life comes from a double source – the likeness ofconsciences and the division of social labour.” Work-as-the-new-community may be a serviceable slogan for seminars, soireesand shop-talk, but the chief reason why it won’t wash is this: it betrays adesire to put a positive gloss on the long-hours culture. It’s a nicemotherhood notion that makes work seem worthwhile. 1 Happy Mondays: Putting the Pleasure Back Into Work, by Richard Reeves,Momentum, 2000 2 Bowling Alone: The Decline and Revival of American Community, by RobertPutnam, Simon and Schuster, 2000 3 The Time Bind: When Home Becomes Work and Work Becomes Home, Owl Books,1997 4 The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the NewCapitalism, by Richard Sennett, WW Norton and Co, 1999 Join the Xperts Take a free trial by calling 01483 257775 or e-mail: [email protected] is a new web-based information service bringing together leading informationproviders: IRS, Butterworths Tolley and Personnel Today. It features a newButterworths Tolley employment law reference manual, a research database andguidance from 13 specialist IRS journals, including IRS Employment Review. Research Viewpoint plusRead related articles on this topic from XpertHR’s extensivedatabase free. 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