"Timeless time" and the New Economy

Studying working time used to always mean studying hours of work. Let’s say you were going to study working time in an insurance office. You’d pretty much take the same steps as you would studying working time in a factory. There’s the punch clock, there’s the hours of work, and there’s the overtime.

Step 1: Find out how many hours people are working.
Step 2: Find out how people feel about those hours.
Step 3: Make recommendations about those hours.

Sounds pretty straightforward right?

The problem is that time doesn’t work that way anymore. Sociologist Manuel Castells calls today’s working time “timeless time.” He says global capitalism has “annihilated time” through the use of information technologies. He’s right to some extent — take a look at the world’s stock markets the minute after a catastrophic event in some faraway land.

Now apply this troubling idea to your study of time. People work in an office (not a factory), they use web-based time sheets (not a punch clock), they carry their laptops home with them (not leave their tools at the factory), and they have all sorts of personal technologies that allows work to follow them on the road, to lunch, and even home. Their clients are up at all hours, in different time zones, asking them for work. Even their immediate colleagues work in other offices, pinging them through instant messenger or phoning their cell phones.

Sure, sometimes it’s not about work. Sometimes the cell phone call is a welcome invite out for beers. Sometimes the IM is a chat about life in general. But since when did a factory foreman call you up while you’re taking the train home and ask you out for wings, and oh, by the way, did you finish fixing that conveyor belt?

Where is the time clock here? Does it make sense to say that “hours of work” are really an adequate way of understanding time?

I argue it is not. Timeless time, annihilated time, postindustrial time, whatever you call it, it is not the same time as Fordist, modernist, scientific management time.

Today’s time for interactive agencies is “polychronic” (and really check out that link. It’ll cook your noodle later).

Time in interactive agencies has creativity, timelessness, time compression, time intensity, timeless time AND factory Fordist time built in. And that’s part of the problem.

Fordist time is old school. It helps you understand when you’re working “over time.” It helps you make divisions between Monday and Saturday. It structures your life in an orderly way. But agency life isn’t like that. People work in the office Monday to Friday. They socialize in the office. They work weekends. They work remotely. They work on the road. They socialize on the road. Work and play are intermingled and confused.

So I am not simply going to measure “how many hours.” That’s too simple and it just doesn’t work. Instead, I’m exploring the effects of polychronic work, the overlap between work and play, and ultimately, the fulfillment that this model brings (or doesn’t bring.

Agencies are not factories. They are postindustrial. It’s about time researchers caught up to that.

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One response to “"Timeless time" and the New Economy

  1. So how would you measure time and what would you change because of it?

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