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.