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The way we work now

Last updated on: June 13, 2013 12:27 IST

Things like the increase in worker diversity can only be all to the good, but what about the steadily rising proportion of “temporary” workers? Asks Ajit Balakrishnan.

Look around your office today. How many are men and how many women? How many have the same mother tongue as you? How many grew up in the same town as you did? How many went to the same type of school or college that you did? And, most of all, how many are permanent members of the staff and how many are contract workers or temporary?

The most cursory of such examinations will tell you that the characteristics of the workforce are going through an amazing transformation. Things like the increase in worker diversity can only be all to the good, but what about the steadily rising proportion of “temporary” workers? Why is their count increasing? What work do they do compared to the “permanent” ones?

In short, what is the world of the temporary worker who makes up 10 to 20 per cent of most modern offices?

Prithviraj Chattopadhyay of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology Business School recently reviewed the growing scholarly literature on this.

He reports, for instance, that an increase in temporary workers in an office leads to a growing mistrust of the organisation even among the permanent ones.

One of the reasons for this, he says, is that the presence of temporary workers changes the nature of the work of the permanent ones because temporary workers tend to have less skill and lower interpersonal connections within the office - and, thus, add to the task burden of the permanent ones. The permanent ones are forced to spend more time on an informal basis on advisory and administrative tasks.

Professor Chattopadhyay’s paper was one of about two dozen presented at the World Management Conference, which was recently held in Goa and organised by the 13 Indian Institutes of Management, or IIMs.

What struck me most was that the shift to the service economy from the manufacturing-oriented one was acknowledged in several papers.

Professor Sushanta Mishra, from IIM-Indore, for instance, studied the link between emotional exhaustion that people suffer in some jobs and how long they stayed in these jobs.

While he chose pharmaceutical sales representatives in India as the primary focus of his study, he makes the case for studying the larger issue of what he calls “emotional labour” - in other words, employees who have to constantly “put on”

a pleasant demeanour and pacify irate customers. These employees, for instance, include those in customer care departments of companies and, of course, in the vast and growing call centre sector.

Professor Gilles Wijk from the Ecole Superieure des Sciences Economiques et Commerciales, one of the “grandes ecoles” in France, presented a paper that also drew attention to the working world of the service sector employee.

He asks whether service providers such as physiotherapists who work in hospitals can do what is right for their patients if they are asked by the hospital administration to measure their work by industrial-era clock time, and not in an open-ended way that suits the patient.

His unasked question is: will the time-and-motion principles that drove manufacturing productivity hold good in the service economy as well?

It was Nathan Rosenberg and his co-authors who pointed out, in their book National Innovation Systems: A Comparative Analysis, how much our current notions about “efficiency” flowed from the work of Frederick Taylor and the practices of Henry Ford.

The context of their work was the challenge in early 20th-century America of managing an ethnically diverse workforce; and the system developed emphasised the division of operations into narrow, relatively unskilled tasks, each of which was performed by a single worker closely supervised by lower-level managers.

Specialised capital equipment was also utilised in the repeated performance of these tasks. This high level of capital intensity and specialisation made design changes costly. This meant that long production runs of a single product design were the central elements of this manufacturing system. Workers had little responsibility for the pace and structure of the work process or for product quality. Fluctuations in product demand were managed by laying off workers.

As I sat there in the Goa conference room listening to speakers such as Professor Chattopadhyay, Professor Wijk, and Professor Mishra - and watched the blue-green Arabian Sea lapping against the walls of the hotel - I could not help wondering what Frederick Taylor and Henry Ford would make of these new theories about the service economy.

I imagine it would be as strange to them as the feni and fish curry that I enjoyed later that evening.

Ajit Balakrishnan is the author of The Wave Rider

Ajit Balakrishnan