Judith A. Holton, MA, PhD Associate Professor and Head Commerce Department Ron Joyce Centre for Business Studies Mount Allison University
Division: Business & economy
Today’s knowledge workplace is increasingly one of complexity and intensification with resultant rapid and frequently precarious change (Reich, 2015). While communications technologies have enhanced our ability to connect, the accompanying compression of time and often unpredictable work demands in the platform economy have fostered compressed and even dehumanized interactions. Coping with such pressures has raised levels of work-related stress so that it is now a significant factor for many in this ‘gig’ economy. Gig workers cite particular stress around “difficulty in communicating with platform personnel, arbitrary terminations, perceptions that platforms always take the side of clients against workers and frequent changes to payment and other systems” (Huws, Spencer, Syrdal & Holts, 2017, p.10).
Uncertainty and ambiguity in such rapidly changing workplace contexts can induce psychological and even physiological stress for many workers (DeGhetto, Russell & Ferris, 2017; Wisse & Sleebos, 2016). Some respond by siloing their efforts leading to a sense of isolation while others adopt a cynical disengagement leading to opportunistic behaviours. Production-focused work leaves many workers feeling unrecognised and devalued. Workers assume corporate identities and inauthentic voices, creating disconnection between what they feel and what they feel they must project. This loss of a ‘human dimension’ through atomised and inauthentic interactions as gig workers churn through assignments erodes autonomy and identity.
My original work employed classic grounded theory methodology (Glaser, 1978, 1998; Glaser & Strauss, 1967) to explore and conceptualize a theory of rehumanising knowledge work through fluctuating support networks in the knowledge workplace. Data for the study consisted of field notes and transcripts from personal interviews and focus group sessions with a wide range of knowledge professionals working in traditional organisations, both public and private sectors. The resultant theory suggests that to soften experienced dehumanization, workers connect for support and survival through informal self-organizing and latently fluctuating support networks (Holton, 2007). Such networks operate as holding environments (Petriglieri, Ashford & Wrzesniewski, 2019) outside formal organisations. Participation is voluntary and intuitive. The growth of fluctuating support networks facilitates a rehumanising process which not only serves to counterbalance the dehumanisation that knowledge workers experience in the face of persistent and unpredictable change but which also fosters valuable outcomes in creativity, experimentation, learning and innovation.
The rehumanising effect is characterized by authenticity, depth and meaning, recognition and respect, safety and healing and kindred sharing. The process involves three stages – finding and likening, igniting passions and mutual engagement. The finding and likening stage is characterized by the development of an altruistic atmosphere, connectedness and trust. As likening builds workers move easily into the second stage of the rehumanising process – igniting passions. Igniting passions sustains the overall rehumanising process by continuously generating confidence, energy, commitment and bonding among network members. The third stage, mutual engagement, fosters creativity, challenge, experimentation and learning whereby knowledge workers are energized; finding ways to pursue shared interests and passions. The resultant sense of achievement builds confidence and sustains work engagement.
Active network participation fluctuates, coalescing when need arises or mutual interest culminates but remaining latent otherwise, functioning as an intelligent subsystem that can ignite a network call to action. While social connections rehumanise and motivate network participation, the key to sustaining participation is the interplay between fulfilling social needs and bringing tangible value to the personal and professional development of network members. Engagement is readily mobilized when opportunity or need is expressed by one or more members.
As these networks appear to form wherever workers connect- at the office, online, co-working spaces, coffee shops, or on the golf course, at the gym or pub – I know wish to extend my theory by exploring its particular fit with gig work.
DeGhetto , K., Russell , Z.A. & Ferris, G.R. (2017), Organizational Change, Uncertainty, and Employee Stress: Sensemaking Interpretations of Work Environments and the Experience of Politics and Stress, in Rosen, C.C. & Perrewé, P.L. (eds.), Power, Politics, and Political Skill in Job Stress (Research in Occupational Stress and Well-being, Volume 15) Emerald Publishing Limited, pp.105 – 135.
Glaser, B.G. (1978). Theoretical Sensitivity: Advances in the methodology of grounded theory. Mill Valley, CA: Sociology Press.
Glaser, B. G. (1998). Doing Grounded Theory: Issues and discussions. Mill Valley, CA: Sociology Press.
Glaser, B. G., & Strauss, A. L. (1967). The Discovery of Grounded Theory: Strategies for Qualitative Research. Hawthorne, NY: Aldine de Gruyter.
Holton, J.A. (2007). Rehumanising knowledge work through fluctuating support networks: A grounded theory study. The Grounded Theory Review, 6(2), 23-46
Huws, U., Spencer, N., Syrdal, D. S., & Holts, K. (2017). Work in the European gig economy: research results from the UK, Sweden, Germany, Austria, The Netherlands, Switzerland and Italy
Petriglieri, G., Ashford, S. J., & Wrzesniewski, A. (2019). Agony and ecstasy in the gig economy: Cultivating holding environments for precarious and personalized work identities. Administrative Science Quarterly, 64(1), 124-170.
Reich, R. (2015). The upsurge in uncertain work, Social Europe, 25(08), 2015. Retrieved from: https://www.socialeurope.eu/the-upsurge-in-uncertain-work
Wisse, B., & Sleebos, E. (2016). When change causes stress: Effects of self-construal and change consequences. Journal of Business and Psychology, 31(2), 249-264.