fuck you email, I love you

I wrote something about my relationship to work and the eight hour day for artist Sam Meech, who is currently logging and transcribing to knitting people’s working patterns. The project Punchcard Economy, is part of the upcoming Time & Motion exhibition at FACT in Liverpool.

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I’m mostly an academic. It tends to be a role where you don’t have set hours other than the teaching and meetings you have to be at. If you want to do your research or tell people about it, you have to find the time to do that yourself. If you want to apply for funding or make a connection with someone to do something new, you have to find time to write about your intentions too. If you need to plan teaching – what it would be useful or important or exciting to know about a topic – or assess how well people have understood or applied ideas you were exploring with them, you need to work out when to do that too. Most academics I know do parts of this in their own time. They may enjoy the days of marking exam scripts on the sofa more than at the desk, or they may find they can ‘only write away from the distractions of work’.

I’m currently on research leave, which means I don’t have any regular teaching. This takes away the weekly schedule of needing to be in a lecture theatre or seminar room for a particular time. I do occasional guest lectures and workshops at the moment, but those don’t carry the bulk tasks of administering, planning and marking whole cohorts of people studying a large subject. I’m also trying to get back in to doing more art and design work. People sometimes call the making of things as a way of thinking about them ‘practice’ – arts practice, design practice, research-by-practice. This seems a good term to me – because making things is also a good way at getting better at the tools you use, and learning about the subjects you are tackling.

I’m used to this way of ‘flexible’ working. Of taking work home to do. Or doing ‘real thinking’ at the kitchen table or on the sofa at a weekend. I think school homework made me approach work this way. I used to think this was entirely a good thing. I had flexibility to do tasks when I wanted to, to mix my personal and research interests. However, there is something uniquely stressful about homework. It requires you to fold a sense of continuous low-level guilt about tasks still un-done in to your ‘free time’. Homework requires you to consider the evenings, weekends, holidays as potential time slots for work, and to worry about how you, personally, will allocate those tasks. If the work doesn’t get done, the implication is that you, personally, failed to plan correctly. Perhaps your timetable wasn’t good enough, or your todo list too vague, or you put things off for too long.

In the workplace, email is much the same as homework in this respect. It allows us and our managers to hide the complexity of allocating and planning tasks in the personal space of each worker. Email has near infinite capacity to hold un-done tasks. And if they remain un-done, then it is assumed to be a failure of you, personally, to have correctly planned how to deal with those emails. I am interested in the implications of digital connectedness. Email allows me to be more efficient in my work. I can quickly find information, get help, make notes, and so on in a way paper and post encumbered, but our tools for well-being have not kept pace with our tools for task-setting, yet. I think digital technology has had the same effect we see in email, in other aspects of work and life that we haven’t noticed fully yet. We will keep making discoveries about things we do differently, often more quickly, in smaller parts, and the unintended repercussions for other parts of what we do.

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‘flexible’ working and the guilt of undone tasks

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