Finding community at the office

In a new economy where workers are “free agents” or “portfolio workers” among a relatively high unemployment landscape (at least in the United States), could workers be missing community life at work as well as the regular paycheck?

In the late 1990s the world of work moved away from security and towards freedom.

A job for life was out. Work became splintered, spliced and diced: contract, sub-contract and casual labour, part-time, sessional and seasonal, project-based, freelance and temp work emerged, as the frequencies and rhythms of work became subject to the vagaries of the economy.

Richard Sennett, a professor of sociology at the London School of Economics, described it as ”new economy” work – the work of flexible capitalism where ”workers are asked to behave nimbly, to be open to change on short notice, to take risks continually”…

The experience of being a highly mobile new economy worker is as Sennett says: being continuously exposed to risk can eat away at your sense of character. You are always ”starting over”. And just like your employment, your witnesses are not long-term. The writer Karen Blixen (better known by her pen name, Isak Dinesen) used this line for one of her characters: ”I was constantly in flight, an exile everywhere.”

Sometimes flight cannot be helped. But community helps stave off the feeling of being exiled, of drift.

Some interesting thoughts here. As I have talked to college students, the new economy jobs are what they want: they want to be able to use their skills, to flourish (which may be different than being happy), and to be able to set their own pace and priorities. Of course, these goals can be difficult for many to obtain in the early years after college. Additionally, many of them do want to find a community to be a part of, a place where they can fit into and still be somewhat autonomous. So perhaps this commentary is really about a larger issue: how do modern people who seek after individualistic goals also find enough community so that they don’t become alienated from society? And are there groups or companies that do this better than others?

This reminds me of what one might hear from college faculty: the job of a professor offers a balance between these two goals. We enjoy our jobs because it offers freedom (to study what we want, to have some say over our own schedules) but also places us within an academic context that runs on a very predictable calendar with regular interaction with others.

The commentary also notes the role technology can play: we can be apart from others but are seemingly connected through devices like cell phones or platforms like Facebook. But these seem less like “true” community and more like community of our own choosing, calling whom we want or making “friends” with whom we want. This is quite different than what might go on in an office:

Yet there can be a joyous, awful, wonderful cacophony when you don’t get to choose – the possibility of a richer, messier, wider community; a mosaic of quirks, histories, personalities. Look around your office – they are all there.

This not getting to choose, however, seems to go against all modern sensibilities: it is one thing to put up with others but it is another to do this without any other options.

The quick reference to television show The Office is intriguing. Throughout the course of the show, there is little indication that the employees want to leave. At the same time, there are very few (if any?) moments where the workers make a conscious decision to stay because they really like the community of people there (versus liking one or two people). It is too bad we don’t see more of these characters given options where they could leave but they choose not to because they realize who they are living behind. Perhaps this is too much to ask: if workers are given brighter opportunities elsewhere (money, benefits, chance for advancement, etc.), perhaps they will always go for that over any community ties.

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