The body at work in the age of capitalism
“Open spaces” and “co-working” spaces are shared workspaces, bringing together several categories of employees – executives, engineers, computer scientists, etc. – all in the same room. Many companies resort to it, such as Google or Orange, to cite only the best-known ones. But why is “modern management” investing in these new spaces?
That is the question Danièle Linhart tries to answer by first looking at the early work organization forms proposed during the Taylorian and Fordist periods (late 19th and early 20th century). She then shows this new management puts forward the dimension of “bodily well-being” in order to organize employees’ work stations in the workplace – as it sees fit.
Indeed, surveys show that “happy and satisfied employees are more efficient” and more inclined to respond to their hierarchy’s demands. Through her profound sociological analysis, Danièle Linhart sheds light on the different forms of managerial activity and their effects on employees.
Are all employees concerned?
The American industrialist Frederick Taylor considered workers as simple bodies, to be managed by the work organization. Workers repeatedly performed simple and rapid gestures. This organizational logic ensured the company’s high productivity.
As for Henry Ford, he subordinated workers to the speed of the assembly line in large workshops, highlighting the importance of the organization of work’s spatial dimension. In order to warrant the desired productivity level, he would ascertain his workers could lead a life compatible with the efforts required of them in workshops. Such scrutiny implied, for the inspectors set up by Ford, the right to interfere in workers’ private homes.
A balance of power was thus struck between employer and employee. This form of management’s objective was to impose on the employee the methods and the work pace chosen by the company to meet its productivity and efficiency objectives: to make profits and gratify shareholders. This social relationship is carried out at the expense of employees’ autonomy, who have to give up their own opinion on the way they can work, i.e., on their working conditions and organization.
However, today, “the forms of domination” between employees and employers must be reassessed in relation to the historical context: Taylorism was challenged in 1968, causing an increase in managers’ numbers. Managers, defined as employees with high skills and supervisory responsibilities, are no longer considered as management’s relay. In the days of Taylorism, they provided the “trusted workforce”. Today, managers are treated like other employee categories.
Now, how can company management ensure they mobilize workers’ skills and commitment to work? In order to know whether executives are complying with the employer’s instructions – in good English/in other words, to control their work – new practices have been implemented: we can mention “reporting”, which allows executives to show their work progress, but also “co-working” spaces and “open spaces”.
The open space: a space for competition?
Even today, attention to employees’ bodies continues through new managerial practices, notably around “well-being”. Indeed, since open spaces are large work areas, they provide for a particular “spatial reorganization” – desks are lined next to each other –, legitimized by the following arguments: space decompartmentalization is said to foster communication and exchanges between individuals.
Actually, having one’s own office – an individual space – marked the privilege of a valued status. This spatial open-space organization shows that executives are now considered just as any other employees. The valorized status disappears. They are subjugated to the same surveillance modes as are employees who perform the work. Danièle Linhart refers to a “trivialization of their role in the company”.
This type of work organization nevertheless imposes a specific type of behavior on employees, called by the author a “mode of presence at work”. Indeed, within these spaces, employees are exposed both to each other’s surveillance and to management scrutiny, in an extremely visible way.
When the open space is “dynamic”, i.e., no place is assigned in advance to anyone, it generates genuine competition among employees. The challenge is for them to get there early enough to secure the most comfortable workstation. Employees may thereby lose their sense of belonging in the company. The author calls this “spatial insecurity”, to explain workers lose control over their work space.
Consequently, this situation prevents the development of a “common identity” – a collective consciousness through similar working conditions – among employees, making it impossible for them to impose their opinions and aspirations on the work organization. It is important to remember the May 1968 Revolution, made possible partly by that very common identity, which has been a continuing a trauma for employers. Hence management’s eagerness to prevent employees from uniting, in particular by setting up competition in the workplace.
These managerial practices, developed in the 1980s, including the spatial reorganization carried out in open spaces, also aim to make employees accept the “challenges” imposed by management. The author takes the example of a company manager who decides to get his executive employees to participate in a survival course. The objective is to incite participants to surpass themselves physically, to “subdue their body”, to make it adaptable to the company’s benefit. It is their physical and psychological commitment to the company that is put to the test. Thereby, the employee is more inclined to adapt both physically and mentally to organizational forms such as open spaces and co-working spaces.
According to Danièle Linhart, this boils down to “body formatting”. Indeed, she notes employees’ bodies are “the anchoring place” of employer’s demands. This is in line with the concept of “narcissistic transaction” coined by Vincent de Gaulejac (2005). This transaction, developed by management, aims to challenge employees to meet very demanding objectives. The term “narcissistic” refers to the fact that these challenges enable them to show and develop deep and “buried” qualities, which might well benefit management objectives.
A search for productivity and performance?
The analysis shows the way of organizing work set up by modern management tends to deny employees’ individuality, i.e., their personal and collective experiences, their training, their skills and therefore their autonomy and ability to take ownership of their work. However, these are resources that can also give employees rights, in particular the right to be heard and acknowledged.
In order to analyze the body’s importance in the workplace, Danièle Linhart takes the example of a job-interview where the employer focuses solely on the way the employee presents himself, his body language, his style. By only keeping in mind self-presentation rules, the employer seeks to know whether the employee will be able to submit entirely to hierarchy’s directives, but could not care less about the applicant’s professional experience. This subordination denies employees’ experience and autonomy and leaves them no scope for questioning the work methods forced upon them. Exclusion from employment is therefore closely linked to the physical dimension.
Under the guise of benevolence, the provision of physical and psychological well-being – some of modern management’s promises – masks companies’ calculating objectives of productivity and performance. Today’s management practices are a continuation of the methods developed by the founders of Taylorism and Fordism. These practices have just been updated and modernized to reach the same productivity objectives.
A number of the analysis avenues outlined here could explain many Orange employees’ tragic deaths in 2008 and 2009. They could also account for the increase in “burn out” cases among executives, but also for the surge in psychoactive substance use. Managers, whose status has changed considerably, are increasingly subject to unattainable objectives that require them to be constantly adaptable.
However, new questions arise today with the massification of telecommuting, which flourished during the Covid-19 health crisis. How does management organize monitoring wfh employees (working from home)? How are employees’ skills and experiences being factored into this new organization? Finally, what consequences can be expected?
Illustration by Adèle Huguet for Mondes Sociaux: all rights reserved Adèle Huguet.
To discover her drawings, https://adelehuguet.wordpress.com/
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