Monday, May 30, 2011

Reading :: Wired to the World, Chained to the Home

Wired to the World, Chained to the Home: Telework in Daily Life
By Penny Gurstein

In this 2001 book, Gurstein examines telework through case studies in California and Canada. Gurstein thanks Manuel Castells for his early support of her work (p.ix), and indeed the research is quite Castellian: surveys and interviews, plus dire quotes that reflect alienation and helplessness. The title is a fairly accurate characterization of the book's message.

Gurstein defines teleworking as "work-related substitutions of telecommunications and related information technologies for travel" (p.4). She adds that "it is of interest now to both the private and public sectors because it produces a mobile, flexible labour force and reduces overhead costs" (p.4). And she identifies several contributing conditions, including the internationalization of the economy, the transformation from an industrial economy to a service economy, and advances in information and communication technologies (ICT) that allow outsourcing, offshoring, and automation. These changes lead to "a two-tiered workforce of core and peripheral workers. While a core of full-time salaried workers remains, temporary workers are hired on a contingency basis. For many of these workers, the home becomes their work site" (p.4). Gurstein also notes changes in the family: boundaries between work and family have changed, particularly with "dual-earner or female-headed families becoming the norm" (p.4).

Although working from home has been mythologized in terms of autonomy, freedom, and control, Gurstein charges, for many, "home-based work is a survival strategy and a form of resistance to societal forces beyond their control" (p.8). She notes that the home "is becoming the nexus for a whole range of activities" (work, socialization, entertainment), something that "could atomize and isolate homeworkers from interactions in the larger society" (p.9). In particular, the erosion of work-life boundaries is quite problematic and damaging (p.14).

To ground her discussion, Gurstein presents a typology of home-based workers, including "employed teleworker/homeworker/telecommuter," "independent contractor," "self-employed consultant and home-based entrepreneur/business operator," "moonlighter," and "occasional homeworker" (p.32).

Getting into the results of the study, Gurstein reports that in her California-based study, "home-based work is an escape from the hierarchical organization of the office environment and the managerial control imposed in that environment." Also, "Most teleworkers find that they work very efficiently at home" and Gurstein partially ascribes this increased efficiency to guilt: "They feel guilty about their pleasant work situation" (p.66). Gurstein also points out the fact that telework is associated with a sedentary lifestyle and cites the fact that "most wear sweat clothes when they are working, or even pyjamas and housecoats" (p.70). More worryingly, some report that dressing casually negatively impacted their self-esteem (p.70), something that reflects a broader self-esteem issue for teleworkers, who "have few symbols of their professional identity" (p.71). Teleworkers also report a shrinking network of friends, lower socialization, and more selectivity about interacting with friends (p.71).

(Notice that many of these issues - socialization, self-esteem, physical activity, symbols of professional identity - are directly addressed by coworking.)

Overall, Gurstein does a nice job of reporting statistics and interview results and connecting them with trends. However, I found some of her conclusions to be overly pessimistic. Reading between the lines above, the results from the California study and other studies seem to suggest that telework offers a great many tradeoffs. In any case, the book provides a nice counterbalance to more euphoric discussions of telework.

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