Feeling and Affect in the Contemporary Workplace

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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The labour theorist Manuel Castells sees these changes as going even further, due to interpersonal styles of being and interacting gaining increasing business significance. It is not only assertiveness, knowledge, initiative and adaptability that are increasingly valued at work for their capacity to enhance productivity. Emotional and interpersonal skills have also been recognised as playing a critical role in business interaction and work development: ‘the new economy increasingly requires the skills that were confined to the private domain of relational work to be brought to the forefront of the management and processing of information and people’.3

For almost three decades, the concept of ‘emotional labour’ has been used to shed light on these new ways of feeling and relating in the workplace.5 As businesses shift into flexible production, ongoing restructuring and improvement and the search for product uniqueness, the impact on workers is that they spend more effort and time on rethinking outcomes and changing work processes. Therefore, they spend more time on building and rebuilding relationships. As Barley and Kunda note, ‘even factory workers are said to require interpersonal and decision-making skills previously reserved for managers’.6


Organisational change and emerging kinds of employee conduct

Organisational change is legitimized with reference to notions such as continuous improvement, lifelong learning and market responsiveness. We change to make things better, to improve products and services, to enhance income, or to extend business power – but these are simplistic explanations for what is going on.7 What is in fact going on is that change has become ‘the name of the game’. Business organisations engage in change because this has become the norm: not changing is no longer a viable business option.

This is not just because products become obsolete faster than ever before, or because competitors are able to revise their production and service streams thanks to more flexible technologies. Change has become a resource in and for itself, a way of asserting business vitality: ‘No necessary progress or evolution is taking place in the field of business; rather the field is periodically restructured [to achieve] a new configuration of profitability’.8 This being the case, business change is not driven by improvement, but by a perceived need to establish ‘new kinds of economic credibility’.8 The essence of this credibility lies in being temporary and in always becoming different.

In modern business organisations, then, we find increasingly ‘unstable interaction systems’.9 Employees have to constantly reinvent norms for working, relating, behaving and speaking. Here, it is difficult to locate clear trends and lasting practices. An apt descriptor for this condition is Sloterdijk’s ‘foam’ metaphor: instead of encapsulating ourselves and our work in stable production systems, we move across constantly changing work-scapes.10 11 Not surprisingly, these ‘foamy’ work-scapes thrive on increasing frequencies and intensities of communication.


Enter affect

We can be more specific about what these increasing frequencies and intensities of communication mean for businesses and employees. First, asserting our viewpoint as an employee or a manager is no longer like saying what we meant to say all along. Instead, it more often involves saying things we may not have been aware of being sayable. What we appear to do here is capture the moment in an ‘entrepreneurial’ sense: we participate in processes and discussions that ‘innovate the present’.12 Here, we (are expected to) become responsive to others and their entrepreneurial approach to and definition of work.

Responsiveness is critical as it capitalises on the generative potential of ideas being shared and combined in unexpected ways. Being entrepreneurial in this context involves collectively participating in what is in essence a kind of generative exploration. Such generative, shared exploration enables (and requires) us to articulate new knowledge to improve work and identify new opportunities and solutions. And it enables (and requires) us to assume new speaking (and being) positions.

Importantly in the context of contemporary business, affect directs our attention to the place and role of what is unexpected.

Second, being generatively or constructively responsive to others’ boundary-breaking behaviours and participating in the articulation of new ideas carries significant personal and interpersonal consequences. How do I reconcile myself with being or becoming different, or with saying things I was not brought up or trained to say? This question goes to the heart of the (inter)personal implications of the increasingly rapid innovations we see taking place today in contemporary business organisations.

In light of the above, it is clear that concepts such as ‘knowledge work’ and ‘emotional labour’ fall short in describing the full array of changes and experiences in the contemporary workplace. The notion of knowledge work erases from view the affective energy that drives us to speak if not indeed perform with and in front of colleagues.13 Similarly, the concept of ‘emotional labour’ falls short in so far as it renders invisible and inconsequential the generalised, socialised benefits of spontaneity, energy and vitality that we may experience. For these reasons, a different way of understanding employees’ experiences and contributions is called for.

From this point on, let us differentiate between emotional labour and knowledge work on the one hand, and affect on the other hand. The former are notions that position people’s conduct as being subservient to existing practices that seek to control and direct. They are notions that place emphasis on reactive and defensive behaviours, rather than innovative and generative ones.

Affect, in contrast, helps broaden our appreciation of how our vitality, creativity and interestedness can drive conduct.14 15 Our use of the notion serves not merely to confirm our view that employees are more and more frequently confronted with having to negotiate and invent ways for ‘how to go on’.16 17 Importantly in the context of contemporary business, affect directs our attention to the place and role of what is unexpected.


Affect travels

Our concern with affect serves to highlight that, in the contemporary business, the unexpected is increasingly expected. This close connection among affect, uncertainty and productivity is referred to in the following statement, albeit in somewhat philosophical terms:

“… the value of productive activity is … found in … the play of uncertainty and the direct manipulation of affectivity”18

For Clough and colleagues, affect produces (business) value from uncertainty. Uncertainty comes about through practices, services and products being expected to remain subject to constant reinvention. Of particular interest to contemporary business practice is that affect re-orients us from ‘managerialism’ – i.e. establishing what structures, pre-determines or regulates employees’ and organisations’ actions – to ‘vitalism’ – i.e. capitalising on the openness of the present, of our interactions and relationships, and of our identities.

The importance of considering the indeterminate dimension and generative potential of the present is evident from the vitality they afford individuals and relationships. The notion of affect puts the spotlight on dimension and potential, and on the role they increasingly play in contemporary organisations. Affect provides a lens for making sense of why and how this dimension and potential operate in the enactment of on-demand, experience-based, and situation-specific conducts. Examples that immediately spring to mind are innovative leadership, moral governance, performance improvement, consumer engagement, career/personal development, business coaching, conflict resolution, and open (honest) disclosure (of mishaps).

The growing prominence of these latter practices is evidence that affect is now critical currency, most likely because ‘affect is realised to be a very time-efficient way of transmitting a large amount of information’.8 In short, affect travels fast. We communicate more in the split-second that we hold someone else’s gaze than in the report that took us a week to craft. And the fluidity of contemporary practice means we cannot help but respond to such affects.

Of particular interest to contemporary business practice is that affect re-orients us from ‘managerialism’ to ‘vitalism’ – i.e. capitalising on the openness of the present.

Affect and the implications for training

Traditionally, our view of business culture was that training served to align employees to pre-determined procedural routines, structural arrangements, normative expectations and emotional regimes.19 This view is complicated now by businesses expecting employees to embody initiative, creativity and innovation: they must interact affectively. We have moved from considering good business to depend on the alignment and control of potentially unruly and untrustworthy personnel, towards regarding good business to be contingent on inspiration, enthusiasm, adaptability, commitment and participation. In short, contemporary work demands we train in order to better mobilise our vitality.20

This shift from the management of employee conduct towards the deployment of vitality has substantial implications for workplace educators and trainers. How best can the affectualisation of work and worker identity be taught, and more importantly, how is it learned?

Conventional models of communication training tended to privilege the individual thinking subject who acts on the basis of cognitive schemas and emotional frames. Little to no attention was given to the productive, creative and co-constructed dimensions of in situ behaviour,21 the complexity of distributed cognition22 or the logic of collective practice.23 Understanding and engaging with affect-based practice in the 21st century organisation clearly necessitates a different approach.

Given the close link between affect and change, learning about change is learning about affect. Education, teaching and learning in the contemporary business are therefore not about enabling employees to settle on new, if rather different, identities. Instead, what emerging pedagogic methods need to encompass is how employees can be enabled to distance themselves from identity per se for maximum flexibility. This comes about through recognition that our identity is not ‘natural and necessary’, and can always be different in its response to emerging contexts and circumstances.

What is at issue here is what Peter Sloterdijk refers to as a ‘play/game intelligence that defines all people living in the contemporary networked world where we cannot make a move without also being moved’.1 24 In Sloterdijk’s work, this play/game intelligence results from giving up our social roots and our claim to a fixed identity. Sloterdijk proposes the terms ‘secession’ and ‘recession’ to capture these two shifts.24

While ‘secession’ and ‘recession’ play important roles in political and economic discourses, Sloterdijk extends their usages to address the demands of the contemporary era. For him, secession refers to people distancing themselves from their social background, their social home base, their culture. Secession manifests in people reinventing the rituals and practices into which they were socialised, or adopting new ones. Sloterdijk proposes ‘recession’ as a complementary term, to refer to people distancing themselves from their self- and identity-defining habits. Where secession is concerned with (changing) social ritual and conventional behavioural practice, recession refers to the emergence of a very different, more flexible, psychological basis for self-identity. Based on his description of contemporary reality as constantly moving foam, Sloterdijk’s argument is that our habits are increasingly and more rapidly ‘out of date’ than ever before, and therefore more rapidly in need of being revised and reinvented.

For contemporary business training this highlights the central challenge of inducting employees into social-personal distancing through experimenting with people’s cultural roots (secession) and identity formation (recession). Such training obliges employees to re-assess and reinvent the ‘fit’ between their habits and the complexity of circumstances that they face. This brings about what Sloterdijk terms the ‘movebo effect’ – an effect that is achieved when employees come to accept the need for what he calls ‘a durable and long-term self-curatorial effort’.24

Businesses must now invest in training that engages employees and managers in processes that will reconfigure who they consider themselves to be.

But how can training enable employees to become capable of such adaptive, ‘self-curatorial’ conduct? What makes this question especially challenging is that such training is not about defined behaviours and sharply delineated knowledge. Instead, it nurtures employee conduct that may have no logical explanation and no clear connection to what went before. For Sloterdijk, such conduct transcends expectations, precisely because it exceeds what was considered do-able, sayable, or possible. The cover image on Sloterdijk’s book titled You have to change your life: On Anthropotechnique (Du mußt dein Leben ändern: Über Anthropotechnik) represents an instance of how humans can exceed what seems possible; in this case a single person holding up 10 others, forming an inverted human pyramid.

Such training is generative of new ways of being and doing together. It is here that ‘real play’, simulation and real-time feedback come into their own, confronting employees with multiple scenarios for going on, with having to devise shared futures, and with negotiating who they might and could be.



From the perspective of organisational performance, businesses must now invest in training that engages employees and managers in processes that will reconfigure who they consider themselves to be. Such training helps instil acceptance that what they do with ease now is no longer a legitimation for who to be, how to speak, or how to conceptualise their work. Without such training, the chances of establishing an affectualised workplace and leveraging this to maximum effect are likely to be considerably diminished.

Of necessity, such training is resource-intensive: it is experience-based, action-centred, emotionally-charged and outcome-focused. It must put people, their assumptions, their relationships and their practices at real risk. It must demonstrate both the personal and the business value of (taking) such risk. It mobilises relational dilemmas and practical confrontations to challenge existing identities and habituations, producing constantly changing learning and teaching situations. This enables employees to move beyond rules about what to do at work and become capable of re-inventing how to be together amidst constantly emerging forms of work.

About the Authors
David Grant is Co Dean and Professor of Organisational Studies at the University of Sydney Business School. He is also a co-director of the International Centre for Research on Organizational Discourse, Strategy and Change and a Fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia. His teaching and research interests focus on the ways in which language and other symbolic media influence the practice of, leadership and organization-wide, group and individual level change processes.

Rick Iedema (PhD USyd) is Professor and Director of the Centre for Health Communication at the University of Technology, Sydney. He is also Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences of Australia (FASSA). His research explores how contemporary organisational life impacts on workers’ identities, agency and relationships. He also studies how health care institutional reform impacts on the organization, quality and safety of care. His most recent book (co-authored with Jessica Mesman and Katherine Carroll) came out with Radcliffe Oxford in 2013, titled Visualising health care improvement: Innovation from within.

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