Chains Break - but We Stay in the Workhouse ; Robert Nurden Finds the `Liberated' Flexible Workplace Exposed as a Sham

By Nurden, Robert | The Independent (London, England), November 5, 2000 | Go to article overview
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Chains Break - but We Stay in the Workhouse ; Robert Nurden Finds the `Liberated' Flexible Workplace Exposed as a Sham


Nurden, Robert, The Independent (London, England)


Flexibility and teamwork are seen as the twin peaks in the 21st century results-driven workplace. Gone is the hierarchical, top- down system ruled by an authoritarian boss. In its place is an adaptable, modern workforce.

But these much-touted vanguards of the new capitalism are not what they seem, according to leading sociologist, Richard Sennett. Flexibility and teamwork are, in fact, nothing less than a sham, an invention dreamed up to increase production and gain greater sway over the workers. The modern office is a latter- day workhouse where people talk less, take fewer breaks, and perform tasks in isolation. The upshot? Many employees are worn out and fed up.

Mr Sennett's book on the modern workforce claims that employment systems are undermining people's self-esteem and even their personalities. Flexibility is held up as the liberating element of the modern workplace, superseding the bureaucratic structures of routine. They claim it allows workers to organise their own schedules without kow-towing to an overweening boss. And it makes change easier to embrace.

According to Mr Sennett, this is not the case at all. Flexibility is the deliberate disintegration of the institution and of time. The old workplace had "continuous time" - long-termism, loyalty, dependence and paternalism - which gave lives a shape. What we have now is "discontinuous time" - dislocation and loose networks altered at managerial whim.

On the evidence of research in America, even flexitime isn't necessarily what it claims to be. Invariably it is granted to the more favoured employees, who are usually white, middle-class, day- time workers. Flexitime is not offered to night workers, who are often Hispanics or other disadvantaged groups.

Even working at home now has in-built controls, when you are required to phone in and supervisors have the right to open emails. "Workers exchange one form of submission to power - face-to-face - for another which is electronic," writes Sennett. "The appearance of freedom is deceptive. Time in institutions and for individuals has been unchained from the iron cage of the past, but subjected to new, top-down controls."

If modern bosses are no longer grisly figures of hatred, what are they? Enter postmodern, ironic man. Bill Gates, head of Microsoft, typifies this new-tech mogul: the ultimate manager of change and expert in company re-engineering.

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