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  • David Courpasson, Looking away

Looking away: Civilised indifference in the modern workplace

As a sociologist, David Courpasson studies new forms of organizations in the workplace and their impact on day-to-day workers’ lives. Here, he points out the paradox between everyone’s perception of a modern workplace, source of engagement and strong involvement, and employees’ ordinary mutual insensitivity. He encourages employers to face this challenge and stimulate genuine teamwork.

Ordinary indifference

“We were all waiting for the names: you know, the names of those who would lose their job. The HR department was in charge of making the list and for several weeks the atmosphere was just unbearable. When I knew I wasn’t on the list, I remember that I felt more than a sense of relief; it was a real happiness and, at the same time, absolute indifference to the fate of the four colleagues in our branch who had to leave. I was simply happy to be alive, in a sense. When I learned that one of them had committed suicide two weeks later, I was sad – but the sadness could not exceed the threshold of my personal satisfaction to keep on working.”

Rather chilling isn’t it? Yet this passage, taken from an interview I conducted with a banker who had gone through a round of major cost-cutting at his employer, does not contain the words of a monster or a psychopath, but of the type of ordinary, educated and apparently socialised individual you and I live with five plus days a week.

Storm of comment

Yet words like this militate against the image so many of us share of modern society and of the modern workplace where engagement, involvement and a sense of belonging are espoused more than ever. The internet and the social and work media it has provided a platform for mean that we are never without a voice. Every human tragedy, every political misstep, every unguarded public word prompts a storm of comment ranging from the helpful or consoling through to outright vilification and the downright unpleasant. Our legion of friends are never more than a click away, as are our colleague, our clients and, our work superiors.

Funky workspaces ?

Organisations of every size now invest serious time, effort and resources in creating environments designed to fully embrace their actual and potential workforces. But do the ‘funky’ workspaces that are the signature of so many desirable employers today actually deliver on their promises? In short, has anything really changed since the days of the old-fashioned factory? The ‘funky factory might look more outwardly smiling, connected and colourful than its predecessors, but it is still designed to constrain bodies to be at work all the time – by mixing up leisure and work, by tying people physically to the workplace.

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In France there has been a 25% increase in the number of employees taking drugs to cope with work in the last ten years.

Despite all the promises that technology would lead us into some kind of work-life balance, work still seems to be taking its toll. In France there has been a 25% increase in the number of employees taking drugs to cope with work in the last ten years. In Japan, the incidence of karoshi or ‘death by overwork’ is rising steadily and in China the local equivalent, guolaosi, is estimated to have killed more than half a million people.

In society as a whole, and in the workplace, it seems there has developed a disconnection between perception and reality. So what can be done ?

Reinvestigate the personal connections

The challenges faced by society are, I’m afraid, outside my brief. However, I would argue that employers need to face up to what is really going on in their organisations if they are to create workforces that are genuinely engaged rather than just paying lip service. We need to reinvestigate what I would call the ‘carnal’ or personal connections that exist in the confined spaces where we spend so much of our lives. We need to re-establish connections where people feel physically what the other is feeling and eliminate the mutual indifference that characterises life at work and elsewhere.

True ethos of quality

And this is not some unfounded aspiration, it is already happening in certain environments. Take, for example, a workshop in a chemical factory where a small team works through the night, controlling the always uncertain functioning of machinery and the dangerous products within. Trusting colleagues for their abilities to fix problems when the flow is blocked. These are the sort of environments where true and robust connections are built up because bodies, health and lives are threatened; and because a true ethos of quality does exist, whereby people wish the best for their colleagues and work hard to ensure that their work is accomplished according to the highest standards. The challenge for every employer is how to duplicate this genuine, as opposed to ‘surface’, teamwork across all aspects of the workplace. It is, of course, a huge challenge – but not one that any serious organisation can afford to ignore.

David Courpasson, emlyon business school

As Professor of sociology, I study new forms of resistance at work as well as the dynamics and processes of power and domination in organisations. To my mind, social science research requires genuine and enthusiastic commitment to understanding the lives of working people. How do new organisations influence those lives? What mechanisms can people use to cope with the constraints and contradictions imposed on them by new labour laws? Is it possible to observe the creation of forms based on productive collective solidarity in today’s organisations? What vision of work do they serve? Does industrial action still have a future in economically liberal organisations? These are just some of the questions I attempt to explore in my work.

More information on David Courpasson:
His CV online
• His ResearchGate page


Further reading…

  • Courpasson, D. 2016. Looking Away? Civilized Indifference and the Carnal Relationships of the Contemporary Workplace. Journal of Management Studies, Forthcoming. DOI: 10.1111/joms.12175.
    View article abstract

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