research, work

Nomadic work

These are the notes I took at a seminar on 11 May 2012 by Barbara Czarniawska at the Edinburgh University Business School on Nomadic Work.

The seminar presented some initial research on nomadic work asking the question: who are the contemporary nomads?

Suffering of “nomadness” and how to define nomadic working. Czarniawska asked if she is a nomad as she has worked in eight places and five countries? Nomadic workers are telecommuters or home workers or mobile workers who perform their work in multiple locations. Or are they people who do nomadic computing, but then what is nomadic computing?

Nomadic work was understood as “doing work while travelling” – see George Clooney in “Up in the Air” – seen as workers changing work and living places often, which is common in UK and spreading in the rest of Europe.

But does it matter and to whom? It matters to the employers as it creates new demands for employees and employers in terms of functioning of the workplace, issues of supervision & control (“how to control people at a distance?”). Perin Constance (1991) referred to increase work intensity of home workers in part driven by guilt, but managers concerned as they have no role in terms of supervision. The idea of presence and its link to the panoptic supervision as a perspective of what management is about. For employees Czarniawska suggesting that the label of nomadic work acts to emplot (emplotment: assembling a series of events into a narrative with a plot. For Czarniawska theorising is a form of emplotment) their work-life stories.

Czarniawska decided to study these working-life stories where people chose nomadic work as the main plot of their work-life story from digital immigrants and digital natives. The digital immigrant rejected the label and argued for digital elders as the creators of the computing era. Digital immigrant works as IT consultant to avoid being employed and “wants to compete under his own terms”. What makes him different is that he reads manuals! But is bitter of IT sector as sexist and agist, suseptable to fashions and hype and ignorant of history, eg, that cloud computing developed in the 1970s.

The digital native, aged 30, changes temporary jobs as a digital native researches digital natives working in research institutions. He has “constructive ideas” which relates to not listening to his bosses. He never reads manuals but rather Googles as a just-in-time knowledge resource. Has a continual sense of being in “deep water and not knowing if he would sink or swim” due to the sense of temporary nature of his work. Nit sure if having a stable place of work would be better.

In comparison, both are single men. One is an (real world) immigrant and the other is an itinerary worker. Distinguishes between workplace and country nomads as latter works in different countries but similar workplaces. ‘Nomadness’ can be from individualist ideology or from acknowledgement that the world is big and worth exploring. Both have an entrepreneurial mindset.

Is there a template for a work-life plot of a nomad? There was no concept of “life on the road” nor of “from rags to riches” that this is not about accumulating wealth. Also neither referred to “the internal wanderer”. Main relevant elements include the “travelling apprenticeship” in the earlier stages of the career that continues through work-life. An element of being dispossessed. There is also the Simmelian idea of the stranger as a paradoxical idea of being within a group but has not belonged to the group from the begnning and imports qualities into the group which “cannot stem from the group itself” (Simmel 1959 [1909], p 402) – for nomads, everyone is a stranger in their groups.

Eurobarometer 2010 study found vast majority of younger people would like to work overseas. People form Northern Europe look to Southern Europe because of climate while going from South to North for better work conditions, East to West for better work opportunities and West to Eastern Europe for new market opportunities.

Conclusions: nomadic workers include tradition nomads who go to where the work is but return to “home” and the “homeless minds”. Modern nomads tend to travel alone, less so as couples and rarely as groups. nomadic careers include both joys and sorrows of loneliness, uncertainty but meeting new pepole, making new friends and explorng new places, Seen as the price you pay but the price can become too high and then the life plot collapses.Nomadic computing is now ubiquitous and mobility increasingly a requirement for employees

Suggestions for further research: comparing nomadism in different professions and industries, eg, management consulting which also includes a team nomadism and the concept of liminality, or potential leadership develop programme of global firms as “apprentices travel from country/ region to country/ region for different work experiences across the same firm; comparative studies of the same generations across different places to reveal the local translations of gobal trends.

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