Time reckoning and the home/work divide: Major findings

Some of you may know that I have completed a draft of my dissertation. This post is a summary of my major findings.

The dissertation itself now runs a respectable 245 pages. In this post, I provide a summary of the arguments, chapter by chapter. I will be giving this draft to the committee this week. You too are invited to evaluate my research and provide your comments. I expect many comments will be already accounted for in the full-length version, but that’s no reason to subject blog readers to a massive PDF.

In this post:
Chapter 1: The “good interactive agency worker”
Chapter 2: Improving theories of time
Chapter 3: Constructing working-time norms: gaps in the literature
Chapter 4: Method and Research Design
Chapter 5: “Long and unstructured”: the interactive agency timescape
Chapter 6: “You become a commodity”: The commodification of labor time
Chapter 7: “The Dad on the cell phone”: Negotiating the work/home divide
Recommendations and Conclusions

  • Chapter 1: The “good interactive agency worker”

In Chapter 1 of this dissertation, I employ the “good worker” archetype as a means of describing working time norms. I connect the interactive agency to its dual roots in both advertising and Internet industries, demonstrating that it is advertising that takes the dominant role in shaping these industrial cultures. Popular discourse portrays the “good Web worker” as “revolutionary,” but I demonstrate that this archetype has a deeply internalized norm of excessive working time, which is not revolutionary at all. I show also that the “good advertising worker” has a deeply internalized norm of long hours. I connect these two legacies to the “good interactive agency worker” discourse of interactive agencies.

  • Chapter 2: Improving theories of time

In Chapter 2, I review theories of time and argue that political economy approaches can and should draw upon complementary theories of time. Political economists of working time have implicitly accepted the notion of clock time without fully examining other elemental aspects of time. This focus on the economic nature of time provides little guidance in understanding how clock time is socially constructed as the dominant time-reckoning system of any organization and what kinds of practices cement clock time.

I seek to remedy this oversight by reviewing theories of time that fall outside typical workplace studies. In this vein, I draw upon the symbolic interactionist and phenomenological traditions to adapt and expand Adam’s “timescape” approach (Adam, 1998).

My theoretical framework conceives of time as a product of economic, symbolic and subjective experience. The division between working and private time is cast within a particular social construction of time; I seek to unravel this process.

  • Chapter 3: Constructing working-time norms: gaps in the literature

Time often defies a quantitative definition (Sorokin & Merton, 1990). Yet there is a tendency to conceive of working time as a quantitative phenomenon, which is due, in part, to scholars’ preference for a political economic lens in working time literature. In Chapter 3, I review the empirical literature on working time and find few political economy approaches that adequately describe the social construction of time reckoning in organizations. I find conflicting evidence: some scholars find that workers are sacrificing private time in favor of working time, while other scholars find just the opposite. Consequently, the debate around working time focuses largely on whether workers are working “more hours.” I argue that this debate misses the essential point: working time is a function of its social construction and as such, it is experienced fundamentally differently, regardless of length of the working day. It is this character of working time – that its conception and experience has qualitatively changed – that is most relevant to the study of conflicts between work and home.

  • Chapter 4: Method and Research Design

Accordingly, in Chapter 4, I briefly review the choices and trade-offs I faced in designing this research project. I summarize the qualitative methodology I employed for the empirical portion of this dissertation. I use qualitative understandings of time and therefore qualitative methods.

  • Chapter 5: “Long and unstructured”: the interactive agency timescape

In Chapters 5, 6, and 7, I review the empirical findings of this study. In Chapter 5, I describe the timescape of the interactive agency by reviewing the time frames, timing, tempo and temporality of the interactive agencies I studied. I find that the agency timescape is a jagged, fragmented temporality that is fundamentally at odds with the static even mechanistic time-reckoning system of time sheets. Interactive agency workers describe a shifting and uneven timescape while time sheets – the dominant time-reckoning systems in these organizations – render time as an unchanging, rational phenomenon. This tension between the actual timescape and the time-reckoning in time sheets begs the question: why have time sheets at all?

  • Chapter 6: “You become a commodity”: The commodification of labor time

In Chapter 6, I explore the ostensible and actual reasons for time sheets and billable hours. Time sheets are acknowledged to be imperfect records of actual work completed; they are frequently changed and the behest of client demands. This suggests that time sheets may have some other purpose than simply to track time. The ostensible reason for time sheets, despite their faults, is to facilitate the billing of clients. But their actual purpose is to create a time-based measure of performance for workers.

You cannot govern (or improve) something you do not measure. Time sheets allow time, a qualitative phenomenon, to be first measured, then secondly acted upon.

Time sheets render commodified labor visible. The billable hour represents a privileging of working time, with non-billable administrative work not “counting” as much. Workers are acutely aware of “how billable” they are (how much of their labor is sold directly to a client). Workers avoid showing up as “available” in the system, and ensure that they do not record too many “non-billable” hours in their time sheets. The result is an internalized – and therefore obscured – motivation to log as many “billable” hours as possible. Non-billable work (which is essentially work that a client does not agree to pay for) is still required of these workers and often bleeds into private time.

The technology used to record time use also reinforces the commodification of labor. Time sheets in these agencies are typically filled out through an intranet system, though some agencies still use paper time sheets. Once labor time is recorded as a number, it is possible to abstract the labor that number represents. Labor time, in this context, revealed as “standing reserve,” that is, as something waiting to be used. But time represents labor time or people. Time sheets play a role in the common agency practice of referring to people as “resources.”

  • Chapter 7: “The Dad on the cell phone”: Negotiating the work/home divide

In Chapter 7, I explore the impact of this commodification of labor time on the division between working time and private time. I demonstrate that the commodification of labor time does indeed create significant conflicts between home and work. I explore how mobile technology exaggerates the effect of commodified labor time by allowing work literally to invade workers’ homes. I also show how reproductive labor, which is typically performed in the home by women, is affected by the “invasion” of work into the domestic sphere.

  • Recommendations and Conclusions

In my concluding remarks, I explore potential solutions to these home/work conflicts, using the lens of time reckoning. I argue that interactive agencies should abandon the use of time tracking and billing by the hour. I also suggest that agencies create clear policies around the use of mobile technologies and the negotiation of private time. Finally, I suggest that interactive agencies should also acknowledge the supporting role domestic, reproductive labor plays in their organization, even if it is done by their workers’ partners. I finally recommend that interactive agency workers collectively negotiate resistance strategies, based on their need for private time.


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