Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Airport blues

I must admit that I do not like air travel and avoid it as much as I can. It’s not the flying – I quite like that, apart from the fact that you can no longer smoke – but all the things around it in terms of airports. Nevertheless, airports are quite fascinating organizationally, as many studies attest (e.g. Knox et al., 2008). They are on the one hand enormous, chaotic, global confluences of highly disparate people and, on the other hand (or maybe the hands are linked), highly regimented local spaces in which people are managed as flows or throughputs.

Because I avoid it I am not a great expert on it, but having just flown (from London Heathrow to Copenhagen) I have been thinking about the experience. None of these thoughts is particularly original, of course. The first of them is, indeed, how managed the process is. You are shepherded through a series of stages from entry to seat. But, contrary to that, it is a strangely unpredictable process. For different airports seem to have completely different rules – for example, sometimes at security you must take your belt off, sometimes your shoes, sometimes both, sometimes neither.

As well as being unpredictable, there is a strange mixture of clarity and lack of clarity. So, along with the regimentation, there are inaudible and, for that matter, incomprehensible boarding announcements. For example, ticketing is now so complex that as you board the plane there are announcements for a multiplicity of different categories of passenger who may, or may not, go through the gate. Perhaps if I were a ‘frequent flyer’ I would understand it, but that in itself suggests that within the global democracy of air travel there are insiders and outsiders.

One way that this is manifest takes us back from the boarding gate to the check in. When I first flew, that meant going to a desk and talking to a person. Now it is a self-serve terminal, and even that seems like the option of those too technologically lame to have responded to the emails and texts inviting you to check in electronically. And at hand for the doubly lame is a uniformed assistant to deal with the hopeless old crocks like me who can’t scan their passport correctly. It all reminded me of something so different as to be an almost laughable comparison to make: going to church and not being sure about when to stand, sit or kneel, or when to make the appropriate gestures.

I’m certainly not alone in my confusion. At the automated passport controls (which, to boast, I managed effortlessly) there were numerous people who got stuck in the booth, either unable to face the camera in the right way or unable to scan their passports in the required manner. As a result, the line through the manned booths moved much faster than through the automated ones, whereas presumably the opposite was intended.

Between check in, security, boarding and passport control there is of course the bulk of the airport, and that would best be described not as an airport but as a shopping mall. The nature of that has also changed in the course of what might, at a stretch, be called my flying career. It used to be about buying duty free goods, but at least within the EU, and at least as long as the UK is within the EU, that function has disappeared. For me, now, all it means is the headaching stench – so much worse than the smoking that is now forbidden – of multiple, promiscuously mixed, perfumes.

All in all, a dispiriting experience. Perhaps its strangest features are the occasional hark back to what is sometimes called ‘the golden age of flying’, meaning, I suppose, the twenty or so years after the Second World War when passenger air travel got going but before mass tourism started. The uniformed staff greeting you on board, for example. When did that last happen to you on a bus, which is what a plane effectively is, when stripped of its trappings?

Knox, H., O'Doherty, D., Vurdubakis, T., & Westrup, C. (2008). ‘Enacting airports: Space, movement and modes of ordering’, Organization 15, 6: 869-888.

Friday, 16 September 2016


Today’s post is prompted by the story this week that Hillary Clinton has had to take time off from campaigning because she has pneumonia. In fact, she only took four days off – which, frankly, seems very little to recover from pneumonia - but this has been seized on by her political opponents as evidence that she is not up to the job of US President.

Although the political reasons for this are obvious, it seems to me to fit with a wider issue of the way that in the UK, at least, going off sick is frowned upon, and worse. It can be taken as a sign of unreliability and lack of commitment. The Sports Direct scandal revealed exactly this, with sick leave being counted against workers, who as a result were too scared to take it. But that case is the tip of a much larger iceberg. A 2015 survey found that one in four British workers were too afraid to take time off when ill, and the study suggests that they are much less likely to do so than workers in some other countries: in 2015 8.9% of British workers took more than 8 days sick leave compared with 25.3% of German workers.

If we discount the idea that the British are inherently healthier than the Germans, then it seems obvious that what is at issue is the politics and culture of work. Organizationally, it links to the more brutal management and work conditions in Britain, including the precarious employment terms discussed in my last post. Certainly self-employed workers take about half as much time off sick as those in employment.

British politicians routinely berate the public sector in particular for having higher levels of sick leave than the private sector even though both have fallen steadily for the last 20 years according to the Office for National Statistics. But Stephen Bevan of the Work Foundation and Lancaster University Management School explains that this difference (7.9 days per year in the public sector versus 5.5 days in the private sector) can easily be understood. It isn’t that public sector workers are malingerers, but a combination of the demographics, the more risky occupations and the better recording of sick leave that exist within the public sector.

In addition to this, I think that there is a very macho issue around taking sick leave. This seems evident in the debate about Hillary Clinton illness but, more generally in the sense that it is somehow ‘soft’ or ‘wimpy’ to ‘give in’ and take time off. Real men power on through it. The UK statistics bear this out, with women losing 2.6% of working hours to sickness compared with 1.6% for men (2013 figures).

It seems unlikely to me that it is any better for businesses than for individuals to work when they are sick. They are likely to be less productive, and to infect other workers. With the weather in Britain today having taken a decisive turn to autumn, we are now entering the season of coughs and colds. Personally, I find it intensely unpleasant if the people at work, in shops or on public transport are spluttering and sneezing all over me. In 1945 there was a splendidly amusing public information film (you can see it here) warning that ‘coughs and sneezes spread diseases’ and instructing people to use a handkerchief. Well, that’s fine so far as it goes, but much better for all concerned to stay off sick until you get better, and for employers to support that.

Thursday, 8 September 2016

Work and food

There has been a huge – 20% - rise in the number of workers in the UK on Zero Hours Contracts (ZHCs) in the last year, bringing the total to about 900,000. It’s telling that in the third edition of my book, published in 2012 but mainly written in 2011 I did not mention ZHCs, which at that time were much less common and there were perhaps only 200,000 workers on them in the UK. That is remedied in the fourth edition that will be out later this year, of course, but even that will not take account of this latest surge.

Lauded as offering ‘flexibility’ for individuals, ZHCs are all about flexibility for organizations: there are no guaranteed hours, it is labour on demand. And although in the public mind they are associated with low-skill jobs like cleaning and catering, they are also common in professional occupations such as teaching and airline pilots.

It’s become obligatory to say that ZHCs suit some people, but to foreground that is to de-emphasise that in most cases they do not, and are a source of miserable insecurity (for some experiences see here and here). But recently published research shows that they are also bad from a business point of view, in terms of contributing to the long-term productivity problem of UK business (Rubery, Keizer & Grimshaw, 2016).

The worst kinds of ZHCs – so-called exclusive ZHCs, which prevent workers taking employment with other employers – have been banned in the UK. And, under great political pressure, retailer Sports Direct (where over 90% of staff are on ZHCs) has announced this week that it will give its employees (but not agency staff) a choice between a ZHC and a guaranteed hours contract. But ZHCs are illegal in New Zealand and (with some complexity of definition) in many European countries.

Whilst ZHCs have received a lot of media and political attention, what is perhaps even more significant is the rise in self-employment. This connotes an image of small entrepreneurs and sturdy self-reliance of the sort lauded by free market ideologues. In fact, it is largely to do with companies employing people as independent contractors – often, people who were hitherto employees of the same companies they now contact to – and the rise of the gig, or uber, economy. There are perhaps 5 million people in the UK who are self-employed.

I know from personal experience what the insecurity of self-employment means because my father, after he left the army, was a self-employed driving instructor during my childhood. That encompassed periods when anything from illness to a heavy snowfall to the petrol shortages during the 1973 oil crisis, and in those periods he had no income and no savings and the consequence was that our family had – almost literally - no food. But what I remember more from those times than the lack of food is the pervasive worry that tomorrow there would be no food at all. Nowadays, I’m insulated from such insecurity but when I contribute to the local foodbank it’s because I remember what it means. In the UK currently there are a million people a year who use foodbanks, although this is probably an underestimate. One of the key drivers is reported to be ‘insecure work arrangements’ including ZHCs.

Sunday, 4 September 2016

Launch of the Brexit blog

Readers of this blog will be aware that I have posted many times about the EU, especially in the run-up to the Referendum. This remains a topic of passionate interest to me, the more so now that Britain has decided to leave the EU. However, it is only indirectly related to the themes of the book to which this blog is devoted.

So I have today launched a new blog devoted entirely to the consequences of Brexit – entitled the Brexit Blog - and those interested can find it here.

Friday, 2 September 2016

Holiday reading

I’m just back from holiday and, like many people, holidays are a chance to catch up on reading – meaning reading novels, that is, as opposed to reading organization studies. But for me that distinction is a rather false one. Perhaps it is a reflection of my inability to let go of work, but I often find much in fiction that is informative about organizational life, as I have posted about in the past.

Anyway, the pick of the crop this summer was Peter Hanington’s A Dying Breed (2016), a murky story of murder and politics set in Afghanistan with a BBC journalist as the hero. Since Hanington himself is a BBC journalist who worked in Afghanistan, it has the ring of authenticity. Organizationally, it is the depictions of the BBC – and in particular the flagship Radio 4 Today news programme - that are of particular interest. Plenty of corporate backbiting is on display, along with acerbic, thinly-veiled and distinctly unflattering portraits of some well-known journalists.

Also plausibly authentic are the ‘Liz Carlyle’ novels of Stella Rimington – former head of MI5 – the latest being Breaking Cover (2016), my next holiday read. The setting here is the ‘new Cold War’ of UK-Russian relationships, along with the post-Snowden controversy over data protection. The same setting also provides the plot for A Divided Spy (2016) the latest ‘Thomas Kell’ novel in ex-MI6 officer Charles Cumming’s series, which I also read.

Almost all writers of espionage get compared with John Le Carré (also ex-MI6), and Hanington, Rimington and Cumming are all blessed, or cursed, with this. There is really no comparison, though. Cumming is more like Frederick Forsyth in his heyday (not a bad accolade, of course), and none of them approaches the multi-layered complexity – including the organizational complexity – of Le Carré’s Smiley novels. Only Edward Wilson, in his ‘Catesby’ series, comes close to that in my opinion, and alas there has been no new addition to that series this year. Wilson also has a relevant background, having served with distinction with the US special forces in Vietnam.

Le Carré aside, I don’t suppose that anyone would regard these authors as great writers. Having inside knowledge doesn’t in itself make for good writing, and with the exception of Wilson the books I’ve mentioned suffer in varying degrees from clichéd characters and clunky plots. That isn’t to be snooty as they are all perfectly good popular novels and, for me, perfect holiday reads; and in any case I certainly couldn’t do better! My point is that what the authors’ insider knowledge delivers isn’t necessarily literary merit but contextual, and specifically organizational, plausibility.

That quality of having ‘been there’ is generally lacking in the organization studies literature. Ethnographies alone display it, but ethnographies are time-consuming and increasingly rare because of the time pressures of academic research. Nor does it readily yield a string of journal publications. Almost all qualitative research now is interview-based, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing but rarely gives the reader that sense of understanding a hitherto unknown world that ethnography – and fiction – can deliver.

Nevertheless, careful research and a dash of imagination can have the same effect. An example is another of my holiday reads, Alan Furst’s A Hero in France (2016). Furst is also an ex-journalist but the historical settings (usually Europe during or just before the Second World War) are necessarily researched rather than experienced. The research is sometimes too obtrusive, it must be admitted, but in this latest book that is not so, and there is a strong sense – almost a smell – of occupied Paris. Organizationally, though, this story of the French Resistance is very different to that of the BBC or of intelligence agencies. For how do you organize in secret?

And here I return from holiday to work, as this is the theme of my chapter, with Jana Costas, on ‘invisible organizations’ in A Research Agenda for Management and Organization Studies edited by Barbara Czarniawska and published just two days ago.