Security, dignity, and quality

Today, UCU are foregrounding their campaign against casualisation of university teaching in their ‘stamp out casual contracts‘ day of action (you can find their newsletter here). A substantial part of their campaign, as well as the more general campaign by trade unions against zero hours contracts, emphasises the psychological as well as the financial burden placed on employees by insecure and uncertain work.

We may all have experienced the uncertainty of trying to find a job in order to pay our bills and achieve a decent standard of living, but when you have found employment, and that remains no guarantee of keeping the wolf from the door, workers remain in a state of ongoing anxiety and must devote a substantial proportion of their efforts to looking for additional work or sources of income. There is a fine line between claiming such tactics encourage entrepreneurial behaviour and promoting extreme exploitation as firms attempt to evade their moral responsibilities towards employees.

Such arguments sometimes fall upon deaf ears, after all those of us earning enough to succeed by such work may see little harm in the arrangements. But in doing so we are often inclined to overlook our own privilege in health, wealth and the unpaid support of family or friends. With individuals as with corporations, our successes are never truly our own, they rely upon the supportive and nurturing work of others who came before us to provide us with education, nurse us through sickness and protect us from tasks of which we were not yet capable. It is also easy to over-simplistically compare our situation with those of other countries which exhibit wildly different taxation arrangements with significant consequences for quality of life.

It is worth noting that our moral actions and sentiments promote collective productivity and sustainable lifestyles, while the egoism of putting the individual first often comes at the cost of long term prosperity and happiness. In the International Labour Organization’s measurement factors of decent work, job security is a notable factor contributing to the dignity of workers. This is not because job security is a marker of status in society, but rather because of our interdependence as human beings. Having some security in our work and income allows us to enter into supportive relationships with others; to support our parents or our children, to make plans for our future, to develop time for our education or to give something back to our communities. From this, many more than the employees of one company benefit from the stability, and such organizations benefit from peaceful, stable markets in return. Workers are also less fearful, and are more likely to raise issues with their employer, which though it may reduce productivity in the short term, help to develop a better company, better products and better relationships within that company.

In the case of academic work, the pursuit of knowledge is not assisted by anxiety, fear and a reticence to speak out promoted by casual contracts. It may not seem immediately apparent to students surrounded by beautiful new buildings and high-tech equipment, but without the dignity and wellbeing of securely employed staff, these are a poor measure of educational quality. The best teacher or mentor, advisor or adminstrator you will ever need, might be that person who wasn’t able to keep up with the three jobs worth of work they were only being paid one salary to perform. They might be the person sleeping in their car between lectures because they stayed up all night marking exams. They might be the person who becomes unable to get to work because they simply couldn’t make ends meet. A small mistake might undermine your learning due to no hours being paid to update your teacher’s training in the library, or your administrator’s knowledge of new software. And as a result, they might not be there for you, at their best when you need them most.

We are much more interdependent than an uncertain transaction of time would have you believe. Stamp out zero hours contracts; not only for worker’s dignity, but in recognition of our worth together, as more than the sum of our parts.

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Conferencing in the USA

This post highlights some of the interesting features of attending the Academy of Management Conference in the USA, from a stranger’s perspective. For those who might look to attend these conferences in the future it may serve as a useful guide on what to expect, especially for those who consider themselves outsiders. I have never been to the USA, and in addition I am attending a conference focussed substantially on ‘mainstream’ or orthodox approaches to the study and practice of management which readers of this blog may have noticed is not exactly in line with my approach to management research.

I have found the travelling hard, as I have not only taken three days to adjust to the time zone, but also find that the jet-lag has manifested in physical queasiness and an inability to concentrate for long periods of time (something of a difficulty in a conference!). It doesn’t help, in these circumstances, to be travelling alone. There were some good perks from this though. I did get a complimentary upgrade to business class for part of my flights here as a result of being a solo traveller. Top marks for Delta! Unfortunately I have also been suffering from culture shock, less in terms of the US culture generally, and more in terms of the academic culture. This has led me to reflect on my shift in use of spoken language (I don’t think I have ever used the word ‘awesome’ so much in my life) and body language. Perhaps this will make its way into another post!

It’s now the third day of the conference and the first day of the main program. The conference started with a variety of ‘PDWs’ (that’s professional development workshops). But what counts as academic professional development? Some of these activities are fairly as expected, with events considering best practices for teaching and so on. However as the US teaching model is very different to the UK one, I have found that these have often been of limited use. Other PDW sessions have concentrated on particular research problems, writing development and bringing together people with similar research interests. Personally I have found these much more interesting, though the cynic in me notes these are part of the social bases of research development rather more than they may be about sharing intellectual material. Perhaps once I have contrasted these experiences with those of the main program I will be less of a cynic!

In contrast, the entrepreneurs and innovators whom I have met, including the practitioners and writers who are attending the conference, have been really refreshing. They want to engage with management scholarship, and are very clear on why they are here and the sort of problems they hope academia has the solutions to. Talking with these people helps to ground all this intellectual work in a more pragmatic sense, exposes issues with conventional epistemologies and presents a great sounding board for ideas.

This conference is a very significant one for the academic job market, so there is also a clearly evident and aggressive level of networking going on in some places. There is also information sharing between academics about their institutions and what it is like to work there which is very interesting, especially for critical scholars who are turning that reflective lens inward on the academic world and the production of knowledge.

From today, the main research focus of the conference begins. So there will be a follow up post – watch this space!!

Meaningful Work

Thanks to the ESRC Festival of Social Science, last week with the support of the New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-Under-Lyme I ran an event asking individuals to consider what they felt stood in the way of meaningful work. While there has been plenty of academic research into this topic, as well as related concerns about the quality of work in the form of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ jobs, the search for meaningful work as an academic topic and an everyday activity seems to fade into the background when many people count themselves lucky to be earning enough money to not need to rely on food banks just to get by.

The workshop was led by Sue Moffat, director of New Vic Borderlines and advocate of the use of theatrical techniques to get people to engage with each other and express their shared knowledge. As part of the workshop we played games to examine how we learn to trust people we work with, how a competitive urge developed, encouraging us to challenge some individuals and make alliances with others. We then talked about this as a group, exploring how important social camaraderie at work can be to make it a meaningful experience, or even how some types of paid work were only meaningful as enabling independence and freedom to do things in other aspects of life. We also listened to recordings about work, thinking about how the sounds and sensations of working could play a part in bringing meaning to a community as much as to individual people, and reflecting in particular on how the disappearance of those sounds and sensations could leave a feeling of loss.

Much of our later activity, building a narrative around images and objects in the theatre reiterated these themes about society, community and individual approaches to meaning. Using large metal frames we entangled teacups and wallets, stethoscopes and teddy bears. A story of the voyage towards meaningful work was written, considering the importance of the crew aboard the vessel, the storms and dangers of the deep seas, the provisions needed to survive the trip, and the search for dry land. While these metaphors may seem fanciful, they allowed everyone participating in the workshop to easily explore their shared experiences based on how they interpreted these objects and events. Throughout, we discovered that meaning was elusive, and could be challenged or built through our relationships with others. We explored how many of our everyday frustrations with work were those which challenged its goals or meanings, and how the money obtained through paid work was not enough to fulfil our desires for a meaningful life, and for meaningful work to occupy it.

For more information about the New Vic Theatre, follow this link.

This event was followed by an evening discussion about what business can do for society, hosted by Keele University Management School. There will be a follow up post on this next week.