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How is Corona changing the world of work?

by Dieter Sauer and Richard Detje Tuesday, Dec. 28, 2021 at 6:02 PM

What was born out of necessity is to become the new standard: The pandemic-related expansion of mobile work is leading to considerations to change the organization of work, to change business areas online. In addition to savings in real estate and travel costs, companies also expect this to increase flexibility.

How is Corona changing the world of work?

A survey in the industrial and service sectors

Dieter Sauer & Richard Detje in Luxembourg (29.07.2021)

[This article published on 7/29/2021 is translated from the German on the Internet, How is Corona changing the world of work?]

The corona pandemic has shaken everyday life deeper than other times of crisis and upheaval. The focus of public attention is on the restrictions of private and public life. Lockdown measures in the first and second waves of the pandemic focused on closing service industries with frequent customer contact unless they were classified as "systemically important". The industry remained and remains almost undisturbed. At best, in spectacular cases such as in the meat industry, health-endangering employment relationships could no longer be ignored. Otherwise, wide fields of the world of work receive little public attention.

In order to lift the veil that lies on the world of work, we conducted extensive interviews with company and personnel councils as well as trade union secretaries in the first wave of the pandemic between April and July 2020. [1] We wanted to know how the corona crisis was received by the companies, how it was dealt with, which conflicts of interest were observed and in which direction employment relationships are changing.

1. The Corona crisis – the »perfect storm

There can be no question of the corona crisis. Rather, it is a meeting of very different development processes that constitutes the peculiarity of the contemporary crisis. An example is a representative of IG Metall from a region strongly influenced by mechanical engineering, who points to an accumulation of problems:

"There are companies where the crisis basically began last year with a significant slump in orders ... some have already had short-time work since November last year [2019]. And then, from March [2020], this has almost collapsed massively. For some, this was a 100% slump, simply because the supply chains no longer worked, because companies themselves had corona cases and then closed everything as a precaution. Since Corona, what was hinted at in the crisis has simply tripled in terms of problems."

The points listed here already make it clear that the "perfect storm" (Fratzscher 2020) that broke out in 2020 has numerous influencing factors. There are three peculiarities in this: First, state-administered interventions in economic development that have not existed in "peacetime" in recent history. Second, the Corona crisis is the first crisis with truly global synchronicity and reach – no region of the world has been spared. Thirdly, in the Great Crisis of 2008ff., industry was affected in addition to the financial sector, while today large areas of the service sector – and thus economic reproduction as a whole – are also affected by the crisis.

There is another special feature: Far-reaching restructuring processes are taking place that permanently change companies, work organization, work content, places of work and labor markets. Ecological restructuring is by no means only mentioned in the automotive industry and the advancing digitalization is now mainly affecting the indirect areas of industrial work and large areas of the service sector. Transformation and rationalization processes increase the dangers of labor market and labor policy.

Certainly, where there is a crisis, there are winners. While brick-and-mortar retail has been closed, e-commerce is presenting record sales; Logistics companies celebrate great moments of corporate development; without IT solutions, numerous attempts at mobile work would not have come out of the starting blocks, and the cash registers rang at the discounters. Our survey also shows this: While in the areas of the economy not affected by the lockdown, sales increased "that it crashes", "the employees go on the gums", as is reported not only from the food retail trade. From our research, we know that there is a working crisis dimension that is, as it were, permanent, because it means permanent pressure, stress and uncertainty for the workforce. Our finding, which has already come to light in previous studies, that from the point of view of employees in the companies "there is always a crisis", is corroborated (Detje et al 2011).

2. Short-time working – little-noticed risks of precariousness and poverty

Despite the huge crisis slump in 2020, the negative consequences of the labor market remained manageable. At least temporarily, this has been achieved with the extended instrument of short-time work. Up to 2.2 million jobs are said to have been saved. [2] Once again, there is talk of the "successful model of short-time work".

Broken down by sector, the proportion of short-time workers is highest in the hospitality industry, followed by the manufacturing sector. When comparing the two industries, it is – to put it bluntly – about the whole:

In the hospitality industry, medium-sized but above all small businesses with insecure, partly seasonally bound employment relationships dominate, often part-time, mainly in the low-wage sector, in the vast majority without company representation of interests, usually not covered by collective bargaining.

The industry ideally embodies a counter-world: large and medium-sized enterprises, permanent employees in middle-income situations, full-time, with sometimes strong company and trade union representation of interests.

Of course, we also find low-wage sectors in parts of industry, among temporary workers employed there and other forms of precarious employment, who were the first to be dismissed – thus raising a boundary to the outside world in the company (exclusion 1). In addition, there is an internal demarcation: short-time work secures employment, but at the same time increases the risk of poverty (exclusion 2). However, occupational fields in the service sector with large low-wage sectors and little or no trade union organizational power are particularly affected. For example, sub-companies in the logistics industry reported release practices reminiscent of the zero-hours contracts in the UK:

"In the areas where we sometimes don't have works councils, so people are just sent home and said, yes, we'll call you again when there's work and capacity. But no wage payment or anything...«

The central point: short-time work in the current equipment is an instrument that is tailored to male skilled work in industry, not to large areas of the service sector. Although the welfare state regulation has been extended by the two-stage increase in short-time working allowances from the fourth and seventh months, this takes effect too late. Operational increases, in turn, follow the designated exclusion lines. These also include the fact that marginally employed and bogus self-employed persons are not entitled to short-time working allowance – there is an urgent need for reform in the direction of employment insurance.

3. Mobile work – expanding the conflict over flexible work

In the Corona crisis, mobile work became the central instrument for securing indirect employees. In Germany, only four percent of employees worked outside the company in 2019; at the peak of the lockdown in the first wave of the pandemic, it was 27 percent, during the second wave in January 2021 again 24 percent.

Twice the employees from the offices were sent relatively quickly and in large numbers to the private household to deal with their work expenses. In many cases without consultation with the works councils. In most cases, this was explicitly demanded by a large part of the workforce. Their previously existing desire to be able to better cover individual, private needs and requirements through home office has been updated twice by the corona crisis: for reasons of health protection and due to the need to compensate for the lockdown of kindergartens and schools.

But more than that: Managements, who had still relied on strict work specifications and correspondingly elaborated hierarchies, have recognized in part that one often gets ahead by leaving the old paths of the operational command system, among other things through an "indirect control" underpinned by target agreements. A works council from the financial services sector put it in a nutshell:

»... it may be that our management sees that people still work, even if they work from home, yes? ... The boss suspects that the employees are not mature enough for home office, so to speak, they are all lazy assholes and if the boss is not behind you and swings the whip, then you don't make a handshake, yes?"

The transition from the "command system" with direct control access to modern flexible control systems with greater autonomy for employees is an essential structural prerequisite for mobile work to be more widely enforced – regardless of the corona crisis.

In several interviews, we were told of a conflict situation that could be described as a return to the old "collar line": between workers and employees, blue- and white-collar workers. This applies to health protection as well as to wages if the production employees are on short-time work while the employees work full-time in the home office.

What was born out of necessity is to become the new standard: The pandemic-related expansion of mobile work is leading to considerations to change the organization of work, to change business areas online. In addition to savings in real estate and travel costs, companies also expect this to increase flexibility. Employees, on the other hand, want individual options in the proportioning of mobile and stationary work. In terms of content, it is about the regulation of entitlement rights, about time sovereignty (on the basis of the recording and limitation of working time), about workplace design and, of course, about the co-determination rights of works councils and the opportunities for employee participation.

In addition, it is important to keep an eye on the social requirements of company work (kindergarten, school, care, etc.). Here, in the distress of everyday life, it has become clear how little the market "regulates" and on which social and infrastructural prerequisites the capitalist wage labor system must fall back in order to function, in short: what everyday relevance the welfare state has for gainful employment.

4. Infection protection – a competitive terrain

Protection against a viral infection is even more than any other health protection measure a corporate interest, as rapidly increasing numbers of infections may threaten a plant closure. In fact, extensive measures have been taken to protect the workforce, especially in large companies. A statement we have often heard:

»... they do everything they can think of, pick up on every idea ..., actually do more as they should from the authorities... the canteens closed, only take-away food, protective masks distributed, disinfectants set up everywhere, so they really do everything...«

Is "all sorts of things" really being done? What is listed in this interview passage are above all behavioral and hygiene-related measures. According to the Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (BAuA), these are actually the focus of attention in 66-88 percent of cases. On the other hand, only one fifth to one third of the companies were taken to take technical and work organization measures. On average, these are much more cost intensive.

At the beginning of the pandemic, it was also protests from the workforce that led to production stoppages. For example, in mid-March at the Daimler Group's world's largest truck plant in Wörth am Rhein (Die Rheinpfalz, 17.3.2020), where 400 trucks roll off the production line every day under normal conditions. In other European countries, such workforce protests were even more frequent. In Italy, for example, the slogan stands for this: »Non siamo carne da macello« – »We are not cattle for slaughter«. There were also strikes, for example at Fiat. The government intervened and decided to temporarily shut down all non-essential operations. There was nothing comparable in Germany.

5. From »systemic relevance« to the valorization of work

Not the hedge fund or the bank, but the work has proven to be "systemically important". The conditions have been turned upside down, as it were. What's more, "the people who helped us maintain social order are at the lower end of the scale, while those who are at the top were by and large useless," writes sociologist Eva Illouz (Illouz 2020, 53).

Now it is the precarious and to a greater extent vulnerable occupational and occupational fields that are of particular importance for the survival of people and society. Low to poverty wages, miserable working conditions and a lack of social recognition are hallmarks of systemically important groups of employees. There is an appreciation of labor against capital logics, while at the same time precariousness is continued in crisis management. The unusual public recognition of their work is certainly registered by the employees but seen ambivalently. A nurse in a hospital in Munich puts it in a nutshell:

"People have understood in a different way how incredibly relevant this profession is and how many grievances there are actually. You can use that extremely well and I also hope that we use it extremely well for ourselves. «

This was alluded to the collective bargaining round of the public service in 2020. There, ver.di succeeded in drawing strength and public support from the appreciation of the work. In addition to significant improvements in nursing work, lower salary brackets recorded above-average income increases.

However, the price of heroism is high: because one is exposed to health risks, burdens oneself beyond borders, shows great capacity for suffering and stands up for others – the customer, the patient, the general public – if not sacrificed. We conducted surveys in three service fields in which these »heroes« could be found.

Certain characteristics of "heroism" are least surprising in the nursing professions, where they are part of the professional ethos, so to speak. Especially at the beginning of the pandemic, hospital workers were exposed to extreme risks because there was great uncertainty in the rebuilding of the wards: the necessary protective equipment was not available, the qualifications for care in intensive care units were inadequate and the handling of Covid-19 patients had to be learned.

Parcel deliverers were also celebrated as "heroes of work" who could hardly cope with the mail order business with the goods purchased online:

»... so the workload in the parcel services is brutal. ... We have had a huge problem that people with the masks cannot breathe and work properly, especially in areas of maximum physical stress, such as when you now layer packages somewhere. «

Furthermore, the sellers in the food retail trade have played a special "heroic role" accompanied by applause in the Corona crisis. You yourself had very negative experiences, especially in the first Corona phase, in which customers still had unhindered access to the shops,

»... because some of the customers expressed all their fear and panic in hamster purchases. In this phase, the customers were so aggressive: the employees were spat on, they were actively attacked, in some cases they beat the employees with toilet paper...«

In the political evaluation of the corona crisis, it is important to take a closer look at the systemic relevance of work. Securing high-quality social reproduction has ultimately proven to be decisive in relation to the capitalist system of return (cf. Detje/Sauer/Schumann 2021, 177-183).

6. The hour of the executive or the co-determination vacuum

In the first wave of the pandemic, the "hour of the executive" struck in the workplaces as well as in the political system. Many company interest groups found it extremely difficult to exercise co-determination rights offensively. In a series of interviews, it is reported that works councils and staff councils have understood the crisis as an "emergency" or "exceptional situation" and have postponed co-determination rights. There is talk of initial "excessive demands". A works council from a medium-sized metal company describes the situation:

»Where it started here..., we actually had such a co-determination vacuum for three weeks, because the plant manager just went one-sided and changed working hours, closed changing rooms, canteens were no longer allowed to be entered, sent people to the home office by directive, etc.«

Usually this took place without conflicts, the decisions of the management were nodded off. This confirms a long-lasting transformation of the former conflict partnership into a "partnership without conflict" (Streeck 2016, 47-60).

Nevertheless, some works councils succeed in exercising their mandate offensively. But the hurdles were high: in short-time work and home office, the company is reduced as a place of collective experience; works council work also took place partly in the home office and in virtual space; Addressing and communicating about works meetings were suspended; the mobilization of the workforce is massively hampered under the conditions of social distancing.

The Corona crisis changed the conditions of the work of company and trade union advocacy: less presence, interruption of traditional channels of communication, more digital communication. Forced digitization is assessed differently by the surveyed works councils in terms of its significance for future work:

Some see the lack of personal communication as a weakening of the representation of interests, which is dependent on face-to-face contacts. Others see the necessary use of digital media as a useful addition to future ways of working, but not a replacement. Yet another part sees the use of the new media as the future of trade union work and new opportunities for an activating, participation-oriented interest policy.

7. Potentials of Democracy and Solidarity in the Corona Crisis

It is still unclear what conclusions employees and interest groups draw from their experiences. Some have started evaluations in their experiential environment to understand and classify what has happened. Perhaps the fact that they were disposed of, that their participation was not sought and that co-determination rights were disregarded will also be a reason for reflection. A staff council chairman from a hospital that has been overwhelmed by Covid-19 cases and reached the limits of what is affordable to care for the many patients looks back on the first wave of the pandemic:

»... now they actually realize, hey, I wasn't really asked about it. I was thrown into something. They were instructed there; they didn't really know what they were doing."

On the other hand, they know that their functioning in extreme situations and their self-sacrificing commitment and motivation was the basis for overcoming previously unknown challenges. Perhaps this will result in a new self-confidence and a more active participation in the work processes will be demanded. Exceptional situations do not necessarily have to be handled authoritarian; efficiency does not have to be generated in command structures. Independent action by employees becomes productive in democratic structures – perhaps the corona crisis has also triggered learning processes that go in this direction.

In our interviews, numerous works councils and staff councils report on the authoritarian attempts of the management to intervene, but also on the resistance of the interest groups, which insisted on their co-determination rights and defended themselves. Even if no progress in terms of democratization is discernible in the Corona crisis, some successful defensive struggles have been waged to secure co-determination as a counter-power resource. Some works councils and staff councils have emerged from this with strengthened self-confidence. Because even in times of crisis, collegial cohesion and the creation of common meaning are experienced, and work is experienced as a solidarity context. A nurse in the hospital reports:

»... it was gigantic, this cohesion in care. This cohesion was simply promoted in people, and I have not heard once, I do not do this, I do not want that, on the contrary. Everyone has outgrown themselves and that was also the feedback from the whole team ... so I could never have imagined it like that. I rather imagined the worst and that was really the beauty of the whole thing, even though it was so bad."

Employees – whether in the hospital or in the production plant, at the checkout at the discounter or in parcel delivery – are required to act responsibly in risky situations. They know that the consequences of the pandemic can only be managed with their help. This (self-)consciousness is broken by the classification into an authoritarian operating system, which is intensified by the pandemic emergency situation. In our interviews, the thoughtfulness about this discrepancy has become clear.

There are other indications of new experiences of collegiality and solidarity: In the case of extensive short-time work and mobile work outside the company, company work is missing as a "part of community". The company is also a positive place of social coexistence, an important part of individual and collective everyday life. This is missing. A works council in a metal company finds drastic words for this:

»... the company is more than just work, this is also a place of social interaction, this is something like family and that's why many people want to work again, ... they miss their company family. That's a part of community and then they shit a bit on the safety precautions ...«

We do not know what remains of these experiences in post-corona times and what quickly disappears again in everyday pressure to perform and in competitive situations. But in the workplace, unlike in public discourse, we not only encounter incantations of "social cohesion", but also concrete collegial experiences in everyday work.

Despite the authoritarian crackdown at the beginning of the pandemic, the corona crisis is not easy to understand as a democratic regression. On closer inspection of the world of companies, which our study makes possible, the course of the crisis bears much more contradictory features, in which democratic and solidary potentials can be found. That's why we end with a call from scientists that they addressed to the world almost a year ago at the height of the first wave of the pandemic:

"Let's democratize the companies ... let's stop treating people as resources – so that together we can take care of the preservation of life on this planet." (Thomas Piketty and others on 18 May 2020 in DIE ZEIT)


Detje, Richard/Sauer, Dieter/Schumann, Michael, 2021: After the banks now the work? Systemrelevanz in der Corona-Krise, in: Brigitte Aulenbacher et al. (eds.): Mosaiklinke Zukunftspfade. Festschrift für Hans-Jürgen Urban, Münster, 177-183.

Detje, Richard et al., 2011: Crisis without conflict? Interest and action orientations in the company – the view of those affected. Hamburg.

Fratzscher, Marcel, 2020: The New Enlightenment. Economy and society after the Corona crisis. Berlin/Munich.

Illouz, Eva, 2020: Eight Lessons from the Pandemic, in: DIE ZEIT, 18.06.2020, 53.

Streeck, Wolfgang, 2016: Von Konflikt ohne Partnerschaft zu Partnerschaft ohne Konflikt in Deutschland, in: Industrielle Beziehungen 23 (1) 2016, 47-60.


[1] Richard Detje/Dieter Sauer: Corona-Krise im Betrieb. Empirical experiences from industry and services. Hamburg 2021. The survey was thankfully supported by the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung and IG Metall, FB Sozialpolitik, Frankfurt a.M. In the metal and electrical industry, companies from the automotive industry and its suppliers, IT and automation technology, mechanical engineering and tool manufacturers were included, in the field of services it was care, retail, post office, logistics, air transport, telecommunications and public service. The results of the study are based on 43 interviews from 34 companies. Corona-related these are telephone interviews.

[2] "Short-time work saves over two million jobs," said Boeckler Impulse 9/2021.


Dissolution of boundaries

Labor power and labor organization in the capitalism of transition

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Dieter Sauer from FORUM Wissenschaft

FORUM Wissenschaft | Linksnet


Dieter Sauer sums up developments in work and work organization in capitalism of upheaval

[This article published on 6/1/2005 is translated from the German on the Internet, Dissolution of boundaries |

In the following, I present some aspects of the future of gainful employment that seem essential to me for assessments of the current phase of development of capitalism, which is often characterized as post-Fordist, and for strategic accentuations in the debate on social orientations for action. The empirical basis to which I refer is predominantly qualitative studies in companies, less macro data. The reason for this is that analyses based on macro data, especially in the current situation, tend to reproduce the existing, they can only insufficiently grasp emerging new tendencies in the development of work and therefore support a conservative view. The new disappears on average, heterogeneity and ambivalence as the decisive features of the current development are less taken into account.

My theoretical background and my interpretative slide for an assessment of the current development of work are the following: I try to work out the driving forces of change, i.e. to make it clear what the actual core of the change processes is and to what extent we are dealing with a change of form of capitalist exploitation. The development tendencies of work cannot be adequately recorded and adequately explained without recourse to the economic and organizational restructuring tendencies in the companies. Thus, no deterministic relationship is claimed. The change in the form of work is influenced in particular by factors such as the social institutions of the employment system, but also by the division of labor between the sexes, which influences the supply of labor. Nevertheless, the impact of operational reorganization and rationalization for the forms of use and use of labor power continues unbroken.

In a first part, I want to discuss our interpretative slide and name the most important structural features of the current development of work. In the second part, I will throw some empirical highlights on the processes of change.

Structural features: developments of work

The current structural change of work is part of a deeper process of social upheaval that has not yet been completed and whose results in the form of a new social regulatory model are not yet in sight. We therefore speak of a "capitalism in transition". The following characteristics of this process can be named in a very shorter form: (1) A first and probably decisive feature is the tendency to reverse the relationship between market and production. The Fordist one-way street from operation to sales market to consumption has been reversed. Against the background of market saturation and increased competition, the specifics of the product and the price become the starting point, the manufacturing processes and the cost components become dependent variables. This also applies to the cost factor labor. The expansion of the intermediate sector and the implementation of a qualitative service and customer orientation reinforce this tendency. - This process has been going on for over 20 years and has gained a new momentum, especially in the 90s, with the internalization of the market in companies. The process of permanent adaptation of the production process to the circulation process leads to a new immediacy of work vis-à-vis the market: with new forms of flexibilization and subjectivization of labor, companies try to react to it.

(2) The second characteristic, the new relationship between money and real capital, and thus also a new relationship between enterprises and the capital and financial markets, has been observed for more than ten years. It connects with the first, but also contradicts it: the starting point is no longer the productive capital in the companies that seeks its financing, but the interest-bearing and speculative capital and its investment strategies on the financial markets. How profound the influence of "shareholder capitalism" actually is is still difficult to estimate at present. However, the consequences for the relationship between capital and labor in companies and the change in form of labor are clearly visible: the relationship between profit and wage tends to be reversed. Profit is no longer the residual quantity as we know it from economic theory, but the wage becomes a dependent variable, while profit as a return margin becomes the set independent quantity. Short-term pressure to economize and return on returns reinforces the forms of intensification and extensification of work with considerable consequences for performance pressure, work rush and health wear.

(3) We are therefore dealing with two forms of marketisation which are quite contradictory to each other, but which at least have a common effect: an opening of the borders of companies to the markets and a direct confrontation of employees with the requirements of the market. A new market-centered mode of production has emerged that radically changes the hierarchical core structure of the Fordist company: the internal organization and decision-making structure recedes into the background. The management delegates parts of its classic function, namely, to coordinate market requirements and necessary resources, at least in part, to the employees. At the same time, the market is brought into the company; we are talking about an internalization of the market. As a result, the direct relationships between employees also become market-shaped ("The colleague becomes a customer and a competitor"). Nevertheless, control is not dispensed with - but it is a mode of indirect control in the form of key figures and benchmarks. It is crucial that indirect control systems, however developed and finely structured they may be, do not resolve the contradictory requirements for employees, but pass them on to them.

Subjectivation and dissolution of boundaries

(4) Decentralization, marketization and indirect control as hallmarks of the reorganization of companies, combined with consistent and intensified pressure to economize, obviously assign a new central role to the workforce in rationalization processes. Indirect control presupposes a work organization in which employees can independently deal with indefinite market requirements. Employees are increasingly becoming responsible for coping with permanent market pressure and regulating their performance. The constitutive separation of person and manpower in the work process, which is constitutive for Fordist-Taylorist rationalization strategies, partially dissolves. The subjectivity of the employees - formerly a disruptive factor and often an illegal compensation function - is now becoming a central productive factor and an explicit requirement: The principle of self-organization should call on employees to take entrepreneurial action, i.e. they should control the use of their labor power, their performance expenditure and also the rationalization of their work process themselves. On the other hand, the subjective potentials of the employees are demanded as performance content, i.e. their creative, problem-solving, communicative skills, their motivation and their commitment. This will target potentials and resources that traditionally lie outside the operational design area and that are now to be used more intensively and explicitly economically. With the person as a whole, their life also comes into play and thus the private sphere of life. This process has also been going on for some time, whether in the context of new production concepts in the 80s or generally as requirements for managers. However, it is currently taking on a new significance in the increasingly market-driven rationalization strategies geared towards time-economic optimization.

(5) The prerequisite and consequence of this new role of manpower in the strategies of companies is their dissolution of boundaries, i.e. their separation from institutional and normative regulations that have developed in Germany over the last 50 years. The decisive question here is not the question to what extent these institutional "normality arrangements" (of the normal working relationship, normal working day or normal biography) have already fallen victim to an erosion process, but rather the question of the extent to which processes of re-commodification, a restoration of the commodity character of labor power, are recognizable even if the institutional shells continue to exist. In the public debate, the flexibilization of employment and employment relationships and the flexibilization of working hours have received the most attention among these forms of dissolution of boundaries. There are several reasons for this: On the one hand, they are the focus of operational deployment and utilization strategies of workers, on the other hand, they are central elements of an earlier decommodification of labor power. It recognized, by regulating employment and working time, that labor is a special commodity with a special need for protection. The public debates about health, pensions, protection against dismissal and much more that have been observable for years ultimately revolve around this central aspect.

De-backup even privileged

The flexibilization of work and life is combined with a de-protection not only of working conditions, but also of living conditions. We are talking about a new economy of insecurity, which today is no longer limited to certain groups of employees, but takes overall, even formerly privileged people. Not only our studies show with surprising clarity that especially the middle- and higher-skilled, the employees and the self-employed are much more worried about their jobs today than 15 years ago - but this does not mean that the differences in coping with economic uncertainty disappear - on the contrary, they are getting bigger.

A highlighted importance in the general dissolution of boundaries of work is the abolition of specific boundaries between the use of labor power in the production process and its individual reproduction, or in short: between work and life. From our point of view, new entanglements between work and life-world requirements or resources are therefore a decisive feature of current change processes. Here, a number of life-world development tendencies such as individualization, employment orientations, labor force participation of women, pluralization of lifestyles, etc. as an influencing factor and prerequisite for operational rationalization are added.

Empirical highlights

Against the background of these structural features of current social upheaval processes in the social organization of work,

I would like to outline some empirical highlights from our studies in companies in the following: 1. Tendencies of marketization are most clearly visible in the transition from capacity-oriented to indirect control: Management delegates parts of its classic function, namely external requirements and coordinate the resources necessary to cope with them, at least in part to the employees. Overloading the organization and the employees becomes the rule within the framework of non-influenceable and sometimes non-transparent key figures. A personnel policy of the "lower line" leads to the fact that the self-organization of employees is often nothing more than the self-management of overload. In many cases, reorganization and radical rationalization are also the only way out for employees to circumvent the permanent market pressure. Reorganization and rationalization are thus made permanent.

2. Another general empirical finding is the forced division of the workforce through the development of a growing flexible employment segment, which is very heterogeneous in itself: it includes various forms of employment - from marginal employment to self-employment - as well as different qualification and competence profiles with very different working and employment conditions. The relative increase in flexible employees with expanding workforces no longer takes place in the old mode of segmentation in core and marginal workforces: flexibilization of employment also reaches the former core functions of a company and thus also the qualified and highly qualified.

We assume that there is currently no reversal of the trend towards further flexibility in sight. Flexibility is not new, but with the new organizational structures in the companies, it is gaining a new dynamic and virulence. The associated tendencies towards division in the workforce bear clear features of age- and gender-specific segmentation.

3. In addition to external flexibilization, forms of internal flexibilization, i.e. a flexibilization of working time of great importance, appear empirically. Although flexible working hours are also not new, they are taking on a new significance as complementary strategies for an accelerated marketization of the organization and the transfer of control functions of workers. The main difference is that the individual volume of work becomes a variable and the subject becomes the actor in the organization of working time. We observe a change from collective to individual and from externally organized to self-organized working time. In this perspective, self-organization of working hours becomes the counterpart of the organizationally implemented customer orientation.

New form of control: "autonomy"?

4. Extended self-organization naturally encompasses much more than the organization of the work assignment by the employees in terms of time and volume. In our empirical surveys- although in different ways, yet consistently - in the delegation of responsibility downwards, in new management concepts and in the integration of planning and controlling functions in new forms of discursive control, contours of a changed access to performance potentials of labor force become visible. In short, performance is to be ensured less by direct control than by reversing the logic of Taylorist principles precisely by granting "autonomy". If, as empirically observed, work is increasingly organized in a project or group form, if customers or external parties are involved in individual work steps, then resources such as communication skills, conflict skills, teamwork, ability to learn, etc. - all guiding concepts of new qualification and requirement concepts - become much more directly necessary than would be the case in the context of hierarchical-bureaucratic control.

5. Extended self-organization refers not only to the control of the expenditure of one's own labor power in the company, but also to the shaping of the relationship between work and life. The relationship between work and life is now a highly topical issue in companies among employees and management. In view of scarce personnel resources, growing requirements and organizational non-control of resources, the main focus is on flexible extensification at the expense of lifetime. We have not been able to discover examples of a better compatibility of work and life in our empirical surveys. Obviously, the robbery of lifetime increases with increasing market proximity and also with increasing hierarchical height.

As a privilege, the interweaving of work and life is seen more by younger people: subjective demands and needs are lived out more strongly in work, and the group of employees who use this privilege is larger. However, the privilege is also a problem: the price of living out high intrinsic and work-related motivation is the sacrifice of lifetime and quality of life. This means that quality in the world of work is bought by the loss of life-world quality.

6. On the empirical scope: As I tried to show, the processes of flexibilization and subjectivization of work are closely linked to reorganization tendencies and rationalization projects in companies. This points to the fact that much of what has so far only been peripheral in its effects on employees can certainly acquire a certain effectiveness. One can therefore assume a certain universality of the dissolution of boundaries of work, which, however, has a clearly particular character in its consequences. The result is a heterogeneous "map" of work, which is differentiated according to different characteristics: according to industries, regions, groups of employees, age, gender or even biographical phase.

First of all, this is due to the fact that tendencies towards marketization prevail very differently in individual industries and have very different consequences for individual groups of employees. Decentralized customer-oriented service areas are captured much faster and more strongly than complex still highly concentrated production areas. We are therefore dealing with non-simultaneities, e.B with the continued existence of Taylorist work structures, as well as with withdrawals, as the debate on retaylorized or reconventionalized labor structures shows.

Flexibilization and polarization

Flexible forms of employment range from modern day laborers to the new self-employed and successful founders of new companies.

Flexibilization of working time not only leads to a large number of working time patterns, but also to a clear polarization: a growing group is working longer and longer, an equally growing group is working shorter and shorter. Another group, working between 30 and 40 hours, is shrinking. This means that we are dealing with a clear polarization, above all along gender and qualification levels.

The group of employees in self-organized forms of work with increasing responsibility and greater development prospects are opposed by employees who continue or are increasingly involved in restrictive work executions.

The dividing lines in the workforce are partly the old ones, but they are becoming deeper and more unstable. But - and this is new - the traditional securities of the middle classes - from production skilled workers and qualified employees to university graduates - are also dissolving.

Characteristic seems to be the coexistence of people without work, who are pushed to the margins of society and people who "work without end" and whose health is damaged in the process. Equally characteristic is the increasing coexistence of precarious employment relationships and largely self-responsible work with high individual freedoms.

Heterogeneity, however, does not mean arbitrary confusion, it has systematic features. The juxtaposition of old and new characteristics, of forward-looking and backward-looking tendencies, is an expression of the currently contradictory form of capitalist development and refers to its transitional character. Increasing heterogeneity in objective structures and individual concern go hand in hand with increasing ambivalences at the same time. Rarely has there been talk of so many ambivalences and paradoxes as in the diagnoses and debates that attempt to create a conceptual version of modern forms of work and employment. Whether it is the "externally organized self-organization" of the labor force entrepreneur or the figure of the "dependent self-employed", in which the new autonomy in work with its paradoxical consequences - more pressure through more freedom - is brought to the point.

Prof. Dr. Dieter Sauer, economist and sociologist, is a social researcher at the Institute for Social Science Research (ISF) Munich and a member of its board. He is an honorary professor at the Friedrich Schiller University Jena. His research focuses on business reorganization and rationalization, the future of work and related issues.

From Forum Wissenschaft 1/2005

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