FROM “THE WORKPLACE” TO WORKPLACES
Variety and Change in the Organization of Work
“The workplace,” as described so far, is an intensely social environment. Coworkers routinely cooperate in doing the work itself—the most literal meaning of “working together.” They socialize informally during the workday and sometimes afterward. They discuss shared terms and conditions of employment and are sometimes moved to make common cause and to seek a collective voice in these matters. Some modicum of cooperation, sociability, and communication about shared work conditions is virtually endemic to “the workplace” as we know it. But there are plainly many different kinds of workplaces and many different kinds of jobs, and they vary enormously in their hospitality to each of these forms of human interaction. So, too, workplaces are changing to meet the challenges of a dynamic and increasingly global market. Do the actual workplaces of the twenty-first century look anything like “the workplace” I have described? Do they foster the kinds of social ties on which I stake my claims here?
A convincing answer to those questions requires a closer look at the changing and varied nature of working environments. 1 The challenge is to do so without either lapsing into gross oversimplification or drowning in the complexity of the emerging picture. The difficulty of the enterprise is underscored by a preliminary look at two trends—toward “telecommuting” and toward team-based and collaborative work practices—that might be thought to have clear and simple implications—negative and positive, respectively—for the experience of “working together.” On closer examination, these trends turn out to have surprisingly mixed implications for that experience. Moreover, they appear to be running up against features of human psychology that are likely to curb their transformative potential.
Much the same can be said of the broader trends that are said to be transforming the organization of work. The “bureaucratic” models that prevailed during much of the last century within the primary sector—the large private enterprises that dominate leading sectors of the economy—were relatively hos-