The workplace is the new community – if you have the right job, says Stephen
Have you heard? Work is the new community. It can give us friends, lovers,
identity, purpose, well-being, childcare and dry-cleaning – pretty well
everything you might expect from a community, really – and the idea is going
down a storm among policy anoraks and employers. "As geographical and
class identities decline, there is little doubt that work is taking on a new
centrality in people’s lives," says Angela Baron, an adviser to the CIPD.
Anxiously trendy companies are keen to daub the workplace with the
vocabulary of a mini-society. Instead of a job at internet search engine
Google, workers are offered ‘the chance to be part of a community of people
doing meaningful work’. It is not the role so much as belonging that is key;
employees are consumers of a collective experience. They can bring their
children to work, play roller-hockey, park their scooters and pets in their
cubicles, use the gym, take a sauna, have a massage and then tinkle the ivories
on the grand piano when the muse strikes.
All very dot-com, of course. But in the wake of 11 September, it was noted
that one of the widespread consequences was a renewed appetite for community
and belonging in Western democracies. Corporate ‘communities’ and ‘families’
duly sprang up to plug the gap left by class and location – at least in the
minds of some. Allegedly, business briefly became the new home front.
"It became clear that, for the first time, businesses – and more
importantly employees – were under attack," says Kevin Thomson, founder of
workingthrough.org, a think-tank set up to probe the implications of the
terrorist attack. "Business was the target and employees are now in the
Such feelings have not lasted. Yet the wider idea – that the workplace is
taking on the functions of community – is a fruitful one, chiefly because it
helps make sense of much contemporary fuss concerning life at work. It explains
why so many social issues are being tackled through the suffix ‘at work’, as
campaign groups target the workplace. Ergo, bullying at work, depression at
work, racism at work. It explains why some employers are acting like
quasi-nation states, offering healthcare, eye-tests, playgroups and care for
the elderly. Or quasi spas, with shoulder-massages and anxiety-hotlines. Or
quasi valets, with shopping services and someone to feed the cat.
Furthermore, it explains why so many executives claim to have little time
for formal authority in how they run their companies and a great belief in the
persuasive power of influence, trust and empathy in motivating staff.
Perhaps above all, the work-as-community theory makes a virtue of the fact
that many people spend more hours at work than the previous generation. Indeed,
for a third of staff, work is the most important thing in their lives. A common
interest in work between colleagues can, if they get too interested, easily
become a common interest in being edgy at home.
Is the supposed new centrality of work a good thing for society? According
to Richard Reeves, author of Happy Mondays, it is nothing to grumble about.
"If people get more out of work than they do from home, then fair enough.
If we accept work that is dull, demeaning – work that is simply a ransom paid
for the hostage of our ‘free time’ – then we are allowing alienation to
Most commentators, however, see the decline of community as something to
mourn. Robert Putnam, the sociologist who wrote Bowling Alone: the Decline and
Revival of American Community, is in no doubt that contemporary attitudes to
work wreck society, rather than re-create it in an office setting. "Work,
with its gruelling hours and traffic-snarled commutes, is taking over our lives
and depriving us of time with family, friends and community," he wrote.2
Arlie Russell Hochschild, in her book The Time Bind3, suggests the reasons
behind the compulsion to work are rarely simple. She claims people are working
longer and harder not because employers are demanding and inflexible, but
because employees find greater satisfaction at work than where they live. Work
affords order and a degree of stability, with teamwork evolving into a
replacement for family relationships. At home lies dysfunction and uncertainty,
so people create pressure at work as a means of escape.
If that sounds a bit far-fetched, Richard Sennett, a sociologist at the
London School of Economics, takes the opposite view: work is inspiring a
longing for traditional communities. In The Corrosion of Character, he writes:
"One of the unintended consequences of modern capitalism is that it has
strengthened the value of place, aroused a longing for community. All the
emotional conditionsÉ in the workplace animate that desire: the uncertainties
of flexibility, the absence of deeply-rooted trust and commitment, the superficiality
of teamwork; most of all the spectre of failing to make something of oneself in
the world, to ‘get a life’ through one’s work. All these conditions impel
people to look for some other scene of attachment and depth."4
While employers may enjoy thinking of their companies as communities for
reasons of managerial productivity, there is a whiff of elitism involved. It
could only ever really apply to a tiny section of the professional middle
class, whose employers provide so-called concierge services. Work may well be
more important than it used to be to a few, who live in cities, work in
offices, feel little identification with physical communities and expect
fulfilment from their job. For most, work is a means to an end, as ever it was.
If you knock off the fitness centres, childcare and cat feeding from the
list of ‘social services’ being offered by a few employers, it is also
debatable whether work hasn’t always been fundamental to ideas of community.
Emile Durkheim, one of the founders of modern sociology, writing in 1933,
argued: "Social life comes from a double source – the likeness of
consciences and the division of social labour."
Work-as-the-new-community may be a serviceable slogan for seminars, soirees
and shop-talk, but the chief reason why it won’t wash is this: it betrays a
desire to put a positive gloss on the long-hours culture. It’s a nice
motherhood notion that makes work seem worthwhile.
1 Happy Mondays: Putting the Pleasure Back Into Work, by Richard Reeves,
2 Bowling Alone: The Decline and Revival of American Community, by Robert
Putnam, Simon and Schuster, 2000
3 The Time Bind: When Home Becomes Work and Work Becomes Home, Owl Books,
4 The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New
Capitalism, by Richard Sennett, WW Norton and Co, 1999
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