Emotion as an asset, bought and paid for

Henceforth, our authenticity is no longer a retreat from the mandatory fakeness [of the workplace], but the very medium through which work squeezes the life out of us. — Carl Cederström and Peter Fleming, Dead Man Working

I stumbled across this quote in Paul Myerscough’s Short Cuts from the London Review of Books (3 January 2013) which is a solid indictment of the new abnormal in retail chains. He writes of Pret-a-Manger working conditions:

Pret workers aren’t supposed to be unhappy. They are recruited precisely for their ‘personality’, in the sense that a talent show host might use the word. Job candidates must show that they have a natural flair for the ‘Pret Behaviours’ (these are listed on the website too). Among the 17 things they ‘Don’t Want to See’ is that someone is ‘moody or bad-tempered’, ‘annoys people’, ‘overcomplicates ideas’ or ‘is just here for the money’. The sorts of thing they ‘Do Want to See’ are that you can ‘work at pace’, ‘create a sense of fun’ and are ‘genuinely friendly’. The ‘Pret Perfect’ worker, a fully evolved species, ‘never gives up’, ‘goes out of their way to be helpful’ and ‘has presence’. After a day’s trial, your fellow workers vote on how well you fit the profile; if your performance lacks sparkle, you’re sent home with a few quid.

This winnowing process is designed to select for workers who will feed the ‘Pret Buzz’. ‘The first thing I look at is whether the staff are touching each other,’ Clive Schlee, chief executive of Pret since 2003, told the Telegraph in March last year. ‘Are they smiling, reacting to each other, happy, engaged? … I can almost predict sales on body language alone.’ What Pret has understood, and its competitors haven’t (or not yet), is how much money there is to be made from what radical left theorists have been referring to since the 1970s as ‘affective labour’. Work increasingly isn’t, or isn’t only, a matter of producing things, but of supplying your energies, physical and emotional, in the service of others. It isn’t what you make, but how your display of feeling makes others feel. This won’t be news to mothers, nurses and prostitutes, but the massive swelling of the service economy means that emotional availability can no longer be dismissed as women’s work; it must be seen as a dominant commodity form under late capitalism.

The tyranny of hiring to the ‘fit’ of the organizational culture carried to the extreme, where our emotional inclinations and body language is as much of a job requirement as numeracy and communication skills. This, then, is one of the reasons that Marissa Mayer wants all the troops in the building: so that they can be observed for the right sorts of emotionality, and so emotional orientation can be weighed as an asset, transformed to commodity, and paid for.

Originally published at stoweboyd.com 9 December 2013.

Written by

Founder, Work Futures. Editor, GigaOm. My obsession is the ecology of work, and the anthropology of the future.

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