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Feeling and Affect in the Contemporary Workplace

August 8, 2013 • Talent Management, Team Managment

Rick Iedema & David Grant

Ongoing organisational change and rapid product and service turnover are demanding increasing levels of employee commitment to innovating work and work relationships. This climate of constant change and turnover pushes feeling and affect to the fore in terms of how employees experience and conduct their work. Below, Rick Iedema and David Grant explore the roles of feeling and affect in contemporary business organisations. While feeling relates to individuals’ internal states, affect is ‘trans-personal’; it manifests as socialised impulse driving particular ways of being and doing. A defining dimension of organisational climate, affect pertains to how people interact and connect with one another. This article considers the practical, personal and training implications of affect increasingly permeating who we are and what we do as employees and managers.

 

Feeling and affect are increasingly prominent in contemporary business organisations. Feeling has always manifested itself in employee interaction, of course, and the study of feeling and emotion in organisations goes back a long way.1 Moreover, we are not suggesting that employees have only recently begun to share emotions about work. But there are three developments that are unique about the contemporary workplace. One is that business innovation is increasingly emotion-driven. Another is that businesses increasingly focus on intervening in employees’ interpersonal interactions, as is evident from leadership training and coaching, grievance handling, codes of conduct, and so forth. The third is that employees are increasingly expected to innovate at work, which asks them to migrate away from who they are to become different people capable of doing and saying new things. These three developments have far-reaching affect implications – implications for how we do our work together and who we can be at work.

 

From knowledge work to affect work

Changes in business organisations are often discussed in terms of a rise in ‘knowledge work’2, or work that centres on the producing, sharing and applying of data and information. Businesses need ‘knowledge workers’ because of ‘the informationalisation, networking, and globalisation of the economy’.3 Since knowledge often begets knowledge, the emphasis on knowledge work produces a positive feedback spiral. Knowledge creation leads to faster rates of organisational restructuring and production redesign, a phenomenon that is further fuelled by new technologies and which in turn leads to new knowledge creation. Scholars have coined the term ‘fast capitalism’ to describe the rapidity with which these dynamics are played out.4

It has long been evident that fast capitalism does not just affect organisations, but also employees. Fast capitalism has had considerable consequences with respect to who employees can be and what they can do and say. To accommodate as well as promote increasingly rapid change, employees’ traditional, static conceptions of time, self and work have had to give way to ones that are – or need to be – flexible. Think of the end of the 9-to-5 work day, the advent of flexi-time employment, casualisation and the intrusion of work-related technologies into the home sphere. All these elements have blurred the boundaries between the private self and the work self.



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