How Declining Supplies of Oil Will Re-Shape the Workplace – A Sociological Account

Posted: March 6, 2009 in Uncategorized

In an previous post, I mentioned Matt Simmons and his assertion that liberating the workforce would be one of the best ways of responding to the coming liquid fuels crisis.  I briefly explored the idea that work arrangements in the early 21st Century are actually an outmoded relic of management ideology and cheap abundant oil.  In reality, the technological advancement in the telecommunications industry has allowed a growing minority of the population to work from home or under flexible work arrangements.  However, a full-scale adoption of this decentralized form of organization has not been pursued.  My explanation as to why we haven’t more fully embraced a decentralized workforce ideology is that this new form of organization is largely at odds with traditional assumptions about how bureaucratic institutions should operate.  In addition, the necessity of moving towards these new forms of organization (i.e. gas at $3CDN/Litre or $6USD/Gallon) hasn’t been accepted as a reality of the future due to the pathologically optimistic scenarios pandered by energy economists and oil industry analysts.  In this post, I want to examine some of the assumptions which underlie many employer-employee relationships in the hope that doing so will provide insight.  Specifically, if we better understand why employers might be resistant to decentralized work arrangements, than we can develop creative solutions which target these areas of resistance.

A good place to start when it comes to understanding the sociology of work & industry is with Frederick Taylor.  Taylor was the father of management science which is essentially the application of time & movement studies, cost/benefit analyses, efficiency maximization calculations, and various other “productivity calculations” on human labour.  He was closely associated with the development of mass production methods and his legacy is felt today throughout not just factories, but countless offices around the world.  The notion that in order to make a living wage, individuals must be organized and put to work on tasks that can be carefully monitored, influenced, adapted, refined, and so on – all under one roof – is outmoded.  Management theory isn’t as blatantly disregarding of employee satisfaction as it once was, but there is still a strong legacy that employees are to be closely watch, closely evaluated, in order to ensure productivity, efficiency, and ultimately profits.  The problem with this management legacy is that it is unsuitable for the world we are entering into.

A criticism I’ve heard in casual conversation with others about this kind of idea is that the benefits of having a physical office environment, and the business culture that develops within it, outweigh the sacrifices that a quasi-virtual office would require.  Although I don’t disagree that there are many benefits to a kick-ass office, I think that as pressures build and society presses against ecological and energetic limits, the forms of organization we take for granted will have no choice but to adapt.  In fact, the technology to adapt exists today – a laptop & an internet connection (no-phone, just a VoIP provider) would be all that is required for a huge percentage of white collar type jobs to reduce their energy consumption & emissions.

The resistance to such a modest change in our lifestyles, really intrigues me.  I can’t help think to myself about  – “are you actually serious?” We’re on the cusp of some of the most major changes we’ve ever faced (i.e more people, more animosities, more constraints, faster moving parts, and so on) AND we have readily utilizable technology (broadband capacity, networks, software and computing capacity, security system, etc) BUT we don’t want to fundamentally restructure how we organize ourselves in our workplaces because we’re comfortable doing things the way they have always been done? Am I the only one who thinks this is a little bloody ridiculous? I mean, come on folks, a massive restructuring which would allow people to work from home is not that hard to make work. Has the financial crisis bankrupted our creative abilities as well, such that we are unable to see the low hanging fruit slapping us in the face like a flaccid celery stalk?  (and yes, celery = veggie)

Back to the sociological account of work and industry.  Another heavy weight in this arena of thought was Max Weber.  Weber wrote voluminously about the application of rational principles and formalized processes to create well functioning bureaucracies.  If anyone could be really be credited with the invention of “the paper-trail,” I think it would have to be Weber.  All activities taking place within a bureaucracy were to be documented and stored for future reference.  It was a very systematic form of organizing people into work arrangements.  But, like all systems, it has it’s strategic weaknesses and leverage points.  One of the major weaknesses of a system such a centralized workforce is the assumption of never-ending supplies of inexpensive energy.  So long as gas is available and relatively cheap, we take it for granted – just as we do with so many of our assumptions.  One of these assumptions, is the “Monday-Friday, 9-5 office job, to-and-from the suburbs, stopping on the way to pick up whatever my heart desires”-lifestyle.  I like to try to visualize the things I discuss.  The image I see is of a regular dude living in the suburbs of Toronto, waking up, eating food from thousands of miles away, then hopping into a car that gets 12 mpg, to drive an hour both ways to-and-from work, literally to sit on a computer and answer a phone.  When I walk through this thought experiment I always come to the same conclusion – the reason these out-of-whack situations exist is not because we don’t have enough technology, but rather, we have failed to use this technology wisely.  As Herman Daly would distinguish, we have spent much more of our finite resources on growth to the point that it is actually “uneconomic” rather than on development which consists of qualitative improvements beyond what is strictly utilitarian.  To adopt a development mindset as opposed to a growth mindset might encourage employers to re-think what constitutes a prudent and wise decision given the landscape that they now face.

Pardon the “business school” tendencies coming out here, but what kinds of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats does this system of socioeconomic organization presents to a future riddled with resource constraints (source & sinks), and instability of complex systems governing human affairs? With a rough sociological account of some of the foundational thinking about work arrangements now in place, I will explore such a “S-W-A-T” analysis in a future post.  By understanding the deep rooted dynamics of the systems and their various subsystems (i.e. workplaces),upon which we depend, we will have a much better chance of adapting to the deep and profound changes that will be necessary.  It’s not that we need more, or better technology for that matter.  We need to think more wisely about its application.  We need to stop thinking in terms of clever treatments of symptoms, and start thinking about wise approaches that address the root of the ailment.  As Nate Hagens from The Oil Drum so often points out, perhaps we should be focused on asking questions of value – such as “what is is that actually makes us happy?”  If it’s not stuff – then why do we crap our pants every time the Dow Jones Industrial Average makes a new low? “why do we value occupation over idleness?” “why do we value utility over other normative systems (deontology, virtue ethics, etc)?”  “how might these values evolve as we adapt to the discontinuities of the future?”

Much to ponder….

  1. Afor Effert says:

    I recall climbing a very large tree with such veracity that I forgot the hundreds of small foothold-handgrasping combinations I used to reach that crow’s nest some 30 feet up in the thinner branches. The slightest breeze moved the branch I was clinging to, side-to-side, until I felt the crackle of the fibres breaking in that branch. My mind scrambled for the sequence of how I got up this high, but “pants crapping” was all I could come up with.

    • a.j.m. says:

      note to self: never climb trees for crows nests without avian bird flu vaccine and adult diapers

      “In a nearby tree, an onlooking German flying squirrel, deft in the art of schadenfreude, chuckled quietly.”

      Thanks for the comment dude!

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