Is “hiding” time an act of resistance? A paper presented at ILPC09

Below is a PDF version of my paper I’ll be presenting on Tuesday at the ILPC Conference in Edinburgh. Here is the “Coles Notes” version of this paper for those with short attention spans. For those who wish to read the entire paper, feel free to download the PDF.

This paper is about time regimes that are typical in interactive agencies, as well as law firms, some construction companies and some management consultancies: the so-called “billable hour.” In this paper I ask how such a system is constructed, what tools are used to maintain it, and, most importantly, how do Web workers resist it?

I argue that time regimes are particularly important to study today because time itself is being reckoned entirely differently than in industrial times. Digital tools, such as TimeControl, have changed the way we actually experience time itself. Once we had the seasons. We crudely discerned time’s passing through the position of the sun and the moon. Then we had industrialization, in which we more precisely measured time using clocks, ticking off hours, minutes and seconds. But now we have tools like TimeControl, which not only measure time precisely (something our minds really cannot do), but we also immediately combine measures of time with measures of “productivity,” such as number of Power Point slides completed, number of wireframes completed, etc.

Essentially I argue that time is a mashup now, and this has implications for how we experience it.

Then I argue that acts of concealment are symbolically important. To conceal a thing is to elevate it, paradoxically, to higher status. Concealment can be considered an act of resistance, but not always. For example, in his classic study of a machine shop, Burawoy argued that machinists’ concealing their outputs to “bank” it for later bonuses actually worked in favour of management. And resistance can take other forms, such as “cynicism,” as Fleming argued in his study of call centre workers. Resistance can be understood, he argues, as “defense of self,” and if workers defend their own way of being in the world, rejecting the managerial rhetoric of “go team,” they are actually resisting.

Finally, I summarize some qualitative findings from my research. I argued that these Web workers have a uniquely precarious working position because their jobs are frequently understood as part of the project budget, rather than as a traditional employment relationship. If billable work dries up, then so do jobs. This may seem like a report from the Obvious Department to some agency workers, but in other industries, there is no concept of “billable” time. Either the firm has business or it does not. One’s time is not a function of whether they are employable or not. In agencies, there is a much more direct line between time use and employment security.

I then examine the phenomenon of “hiding time,” which is common in interactive agencies. Workers routinely “hide” time in buckets or categories that are either billed directly to the client, or are ambiguous in their status. They do this, I argue, to “hide” the amount of non-billable time they spend because, and this is the point, non-billable time creates a “spoiled” identity. If a worker has too much non-billable time, they are suspect. Workers therefore conceal their non-billable time lest they be considered undesirable. They “keep” as much billable time as they can in order to project an “appropriate” self.

But does this hiding of time constitute resistance? I argue it does not. Workers do not cultivate an “oppositional self” in the agency. They do not overtly question the logic of billing by the hour (often because they see no alternative billing system). Workers do not undermine the legitimacy of the system itself, therefore, and implicitly accept that “billable” selves are better selves.

Read the whole paper below. Feel free to comment, particularly in advance of the conference. I’d like other academics to hear from agency workers.



4 responses to “Is “hiding” time an act of resistance? A paper presented at ILPC09

  1. Pingback: Do you bill by the hour? Do you “hide” your time? « Design Research

  2. Thoughts — all anecdotal, I haven’t done any studies in this area:

    Some of the issues for the time-tracked professionals that I talk with, are:

    – honesty. Most people want to be seen as honest (both in their self-perception and how they are perceived by others). But people also acknowledge that there’s a range of grey here (just as people can tell white lies but still think of themselves as honest).

    – what counts as “real” work time. Most people believe that in creative / “professional” work, there’s lots of grey area in terms of what time “counts” as work: what about thinking time, travel time, admin time, head-clearing time, switching tasks time, interrupt time (and getting-back-on-task time), client-relationship-building time, etc. People have very different assumptions in this area. Some people bill for every possible second, other people bill the time that they think is “fair.”

    – employer time versus client time, ie internal allocation of hours, versus time that gets billed out. This is influenced in party by the person’s perception/relationship with their employer vs with their clients.

    – Time tracking “rules” (contractual, policy or unwritten). Employers/clients have expected guidelines for billing hours in certain ways; people inevitably “slant” their hours towards the “correct” way.

    – one client versus another, based on relationship. Clients that are pleasant to work with, may get a freebie/no bill. Difficult clients may get billed for every second.

    – the “predicted” outcome (the self-fulfilling prophecy). In every time-tracking relationship, there is an “expected” outcome (explicit or implicit). A fulltime employee may be expected to charge a minimum of 40 or 45 or 50 hrs/week; a contract may be targeted to 100 or 200 or 1000 hours of work. Workers tend to align their work hours towards that target.

    – actual value to the client (vs hours worked). In some jobs, the hours are a somewhat good measure of the work performed (ie call centers, factory line, etc.). In other jobs, there’s a wide range / disconnect between output / client benefit vs time spent. People in this second category of jobs sometimes reflect this in their time-tracking practices.

    BTW there’s a lot of dissatisfaction around tracking hours, on the employee, employer and client side. There have been experiments with other approaches– but it can be tough to find an acceptable tradeoff on the risk/downside (ie fixed pricing etc). A recent WSJ article on this here — but subscription required, darn it —

    My background on this issue: in most of my jobs, my work output is/was time-tracked. I’m currently a solo management consultant, usually working by the hour. In the past, I’ve worked for a couple of management consultancies (which tracked my time against clients). I’ve also worked in professional services for tech companies, where time was similarly tracked vs clients. And, I’ve been a manager who’s had to set up and track people’s time.

    Happy to talk about this further if you like…it’s an interesting area…

  3. Sam:

    Read your essay and completely agree with a lot of the examples in your argument. But it does bring up the question of whether this phenomenon only applies in corporations with hierarchies of management or does it also reflect at the single worker level of someone like a freelancer/contractor.

    In what I have seen around various mid-sized corporations, as an example, the ritualistic necessity to fill out timesheets and time-tracking software is not unlike saying the Lord’s Prayer back in grade school every morning after singing the national anthem (before they rightfully decided to take it out). You are doing something the authorities tell you to do, but everyone who is doing it doesn’t care and blindly follows it, waiting for it to be done so they can move on and ‘live’ life.

    In that sense, time-management rituals are rendered useless because they have no relevance to the ‘resource’ that is filling them out – it is just something that is spit out to make someone else ‘content’ so that they can look good to another person with even more money.

    If they have no actual relevance or provide any authentic representation of said ‘resource’, then they are really time wasters that don’t really acknowledge the actual worth or value of an employee. If this is not of any worth to the person filling out the information, then how can that be worthy as a whole to the team? I don’t think it is, hence the failure with traditional methodology of corporate time-management.

    On the other hand, as a freelancer/contractor I think the idea of billable hours is justified assuming the person billing is very good at what they do and know their timelines in completing tasks for clients. The difference in this situation I think, is that the freelancer actually has direct access to the budget and knows what the financial limitations are, what the timelines are and if they have the balls (which they should), let the client know what can be done with those constraints.

    This creates a trust relationship between the client and the freelancer, because there is respect that forms between the two parties – the freelancer is providing an estimate of hours to the client, and the client is agreeing to these hours. There’s no need to ‘hide’ anything because the agreement has been made. If more work needs to be done beyond the budget, the client pays for it – else, find someone else to do the rest for free (not likely to happen).

    In the traditional corporate, hierarchical example above, there is no direct connection between the non-management worker and the client – the disconnect encourages ‘padding’ and thus ‘hiding’ of hours in order to justify things outside of the control of the non-management worker. It is like watching someone playing God on your day-to-day life and you checking off boxes on a computer to submissively agree to it.

    • It’s really interesting that you say that, Jen, because there was another paper here that focused on time by small business owners (accountants, hair stylists and mechanics). Trust was indeed a major issue for these workers; they needed to demonstrate honesty to their clients in order to gain trust.

      The upshot of that paper was that in order to manage the irregular flow of time from clients, these self-employed people would use a variety of strategies, including also doing “favours.” So time tracking is not serving the same purpose, indeed, yet, these self-employed types also disregard the actual time spent (if more than the estimate) if it will get them a long-term client, which will help them manage their time and workflow.

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