Academic journal article Nordic Journal of Working Life Studies

The Ambiguity of Work: Work Practice Stories of Meaningful and Demanding Consultancy Work

Academic journal article Nordic Journal of Working Life Studies

The Ambiguity of Work: Work Practice Stories of Meaningful and Demanding Consultancy Work

Article excerpt

Introduction

This article contributes to an ongoing debate among organizational and work-life researchers on the complexities and double-sided nature of immaterial knowledge work. This is done by drawing on the results of an ethnographic and narrative study of a human resources (HR) consultancy house that explores the narrative identity work of consultants as they attempt to make sense of their work-life experiences by sharing stories of self, work, and the organization.

There is no consensus on how to define knowledge work in organizational and work-life studies. Some researchers focus on the immaterial aspect of the work, others on the creative aspects, and still others on how knowledge workers primarily work with tasks connected to information and development (Buch et al., 2009). Alvesson (2000) describes knowledge-intensive companies as organizations where most of the work is of an intellectual nature and where the majority of the employees are highly educated. This is also where qualified products and services are produced primarily through the knowledge of the employees. The focus of this article is on immaterial knowledge work, "characterized by non-material input and output, with the individual as the primary bearers of knowledge" (Ipsen & Jensen, 2012).

Many scholars interested in the work life of knowledge workers argue that there is a close relationship between identity and carrier among knowledge workers (Alvesson, 2000; Buch et al., 2009). Knowledge workers are met with expectations of being dedicated and hardworking (Alvesson, 2000) employees and perceiving work as a source of self-realization, joy, and personal development (Buch et al., 2009). Work done by knowledge workers is often perceived and described as rewarding, offering the employees a meaningful and personally developing work life with exciting challenges, and historically, knowledge work has not been considered to be strenuous or burdensome work (Ipsen, 2006). New studies, however, focus on the complexities and doublesided nature of knowledge, arguing that the working conditions of knowledge workers contain the risk of comprising massive workloads, stress, and burnout (Blair-Loy, 2009; Ipsen, 2006). Thus, attention has been turned toward the complexities and dilemmas experienced by many knowledge workers and the work life of knowledge workers as being filled with dilemmas and tensions (Buch et al., 2009), complexities and contradictions (Mallett & Wapshott, 2012), paradoxes (Gotsi et al., 2010), ambivalence (Robertson & Swan, 2003), arbitrariness (Alvesson, 2001), and a state somewhere between excitement and enthusiasm (Buch et al., 2009; Ibsen, 2006).

One important theme in the literature on knowledge work is the balance between work and private life. Many knowledge workers experience flexible working conditions that are often associated with the opportunity to create balance between work and family and to better comply with the demands of family and private life. Studies show, however, how knowledge work and flexible working conditions are often associated with greater responsibility and heavier demands put on the individual, thus making it difficult to balance work and non-work (Blair-Loy, 2009; Ipsen, 2006). Blair-Loy argues that flexible working conditions do not necessarily solely make it easier to comply with the demands of family life. Her study shows how bureaucratic rigidity and a fixed work scheduling can serve as a buffer from the pressure put on workers by customers, thus making it easier for the individual to navigate in a potentially borderless work life (Blair-Loy, 2009). Other studies focus on the expectations put on knowledge workers to be committed and hardworking, arguing how individualized requirements regarding responsibility and engagement in knowledge work are often measured by the amount of time employees are willing to spend at work (Grosen & Gnudsen, 2003; Hochschild, 2003). Hochschild's (2003) extensive ethnographic study of work-life balance-related issues in a large American corporation shows how management often measures the commitment of employees by their willingness to work long hours, resulting in a situation where many employees ended up with a reversed balance between work and family, making work their primary concern and the most time-consuming aspect of their lives. …

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