Unpacking idyllic remote work

I have been taking photos in almost each place where I have been to get work done since the end of 2015. You’ll see me in Barcelona, Madrid, Bogotá, Aarhus and Brussels. This collage shows I’d say a 10% of the photos I have in my computer.

I want to underscore with these photos what we can call the side B of working with digital tools in a nomadic way. I want to show the less visible side of seemingly privileged jobs in what I called earlier glamourous precariousness.

I want to show also that being a “digital nomad” is more than free floating between paradisiacal beaches, meeting cool people and making money while at it. There is a material relationship between us and our technological devices, between us and the transient places we occupy, and our place-making is imbued with our structural positions -our salaries, our work conditions. Even though surrounded by people who are also working remotely, our relationship with those people around us is often non-existent or reduced to mere functionalities: is this seat taken?

The connection to my mobile phone and computer screen is stronger than to the person sitting next to me.

The idyllic image of the life of a digital nomad fails to account for the bodily burden of being constantly on the move and carrying your work equipment with you, digital devices breaking down on you, lousy wifi connections, feelings of isolation and disconnect from your remote coworkers, and so on. 

Taken from the Facebook page “Digital Nomads Around the World”, with 99.452 members.

 

In the case of intellectual and creativity based professions, the idyllic image of remote work also fails to recognise the impact of the degradation of our work conditions as “cognitive protelarians” (the term is not mine, I will soon provide a list of references for those interested). 

Taken from my personal Facebook page with the author’s permission.

This project is among others such as the one by Jeff Thompson on mechanical turkers and Catherine Banner on the daily life of a writer opening the blackbox of remote work. 

I have learnt today to find a better balance between moving around and staying put, between working alone and with others. A balance that is never perfect, that is a constant negotiation between a myriad factors -money, kind of project, day of the week, available places, and so on-, and that is never reached completely.

 

 

Shut up and write… and care

Creativity is key to economic development, to personal fulfilment, and so on. This is pointed at repeatedly these days, as entrepreneurial values are stimulated in a post-crisis economy. But, when can we get the time to be creative when the daily demands of our jobs makes it difficult for us to stop and think? The managerial model in universities has made it more and more difficult.

Since last June 2018, I have been meeting with a group of members of the itdUPM —where I physically attend to work these days— to write while being together. Lost projects, current projects with deadlines, unfinished projects. We have been introducing little by little also reading/reflecting/planning time.

Time to read and write and then to reflect has become a luxury. With the idea of opening a spot a week for these very essential activities, I decided to invite whoever was interested at the itdUPM on Wednesdays for shut up and write sessions. I had already been doing those remotely for a year with my colleagues Yenny and Natalia in Bogotá, but physical co-presence and connection became important.

At first, it was Cecilia, Candela, Mariángeles and me. Then Ander started to come, and then Sara and María José. The group is variable (I cannot myself come each time), but I can say that we have consolidated a group that currently meets currently on Tuesdays and Thursdays at the “ático” (attic) of one of the universitie’s department. Following Cecilia’s idea, we created a closed Facebook group for eventual feedback on short excerpts of our projects. 

 

Idea and collage: Cecilia López.

We are generating a sense of belonging, and a time and space for things that are impossible in the everyday work rush. We are opening up a time and a space to think and to create stuff in written form. And that’s revolutionary! OK, a slow revolution. Or the path towards some kind of change, at least.

Besides the satisfaction that generates advancing projects —individual and collective—, I am very proud of how this very dedicated bunch of people are developing written, planning, and reflective skills. We are even slowly becoming a Bullet Journal (https://bulletjournal.com/) community of nerds.

But the most important thing is, I think, that it’s because of our being together that it has been possible to develop a discipline to pursue things that really matter to us but that are not important or visible tasks in universities. We all feel like we have done something really important when the session is finished.

 

Look at this amazing people. Please note how the attic itself can change from one session to another: find the differences!

Other members of the itdUPM react when we bump into each other, saying: “I want to come next time!” and it normally takes some weeks before they finally find the time. When they come, this quality time for our minds and spirits stop being a luxury and becomes a priority. Even though this is not a new practice, I hope it extends more and more.

Isolation makes part of our work conditions, especially in an academic setting. This being together makes part of a wider reflection on the generation of some kind of awareness of a collective work and life condition. It also places the emphasis on an ethics of care.

A feminist ethics of care -at least in an academic context, and I will here share an excerpt of a very sharp blogpost by my colleague Ester Conesa-:

“(…) helps make visible the power relations behind the masculinised ideal of autonomy and competitiveness. An ethics of care perspective supports ideas of interdependency and vulnerability. As an analytical approach, it offers the possibility to display and study the genderedness of care across its multiple layers: personal, collective, familial, at the workplace, at decision-making level, within institutions, etc. The ethics of care allows us to also focus on the temporal dimension in the academic environment and on the politicisation of distress when care is absent, invisible, devalued, or displaced to the peripheries of these multiple layers. (…) The Great Lakes Feminist Geography Collective, also advocate for the feminist ethics of care as a way to disrupt the neoliberal university.”

Even though this seems to be “just” a gathering of mostly women who want to shut up and write, we are indeed generating political action. The most evident one is Candela de la Sota’s project on raising a gender and feminist awareness at the itdUPM.

As Narelle Lemon and Susanne Garvis (2014: 2) say (thanks, Edgar, for pointing to a great blogpost on the subject):

‘‘“Our stories assist in the telling and retelling of important events. Reflecting on these events allow the ‘processing’, ‘figuring out’ and ‘inquiring’, leading to behavioural actions to change situations.”

The phone rings and Mariángeles says: “This silence was too good to be true”, she picks up the phone and there is no one on the other side. She hangs up and… shuts up and writes, and we all care.

 

Lemon, N., & Garvis, S. (Eds.). (2014). Being “In and Out”: Providing Voice to Early Career Women in Academia. Animal Genetics (Vol. 39). Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

On glamorous precariousness

Autoethnography. This post is about making your life situations part of the method to study a certain topic, and to uncover the tensions and contradictions of a settled official version, that are not readily visible when you research other people’s lives.

Of course, the criticism made to this method comes to mind right away, such as those presented by Sara Delamont (2009). Autoethnography gives voice to those who don’t need more space or time to be heard, because they already have it. That is to say, autoethnography is criticised for amplifying the voice of the privileged, and reproducing a system of privilege. This criticism is understandable, but leads to a vision of a world made of black and whites, and no greys. It is a vision that doesn’t allow to open black boxes and a prioris, which should be one of the principles of ethnography in the first place. Delamont also states that social scientists have powerful methods to study unknown worlds (p. 59), and social scientists world’s aren’t among these, and aren’t interesting.

This is ironic, as one of these black boxes is that academics are seen as privileged and “no problem” people. But is a fact that academics, and especially those starting their careers in current higher education and research contexts, have serious trouble getting a decent job. They can’t just be considered as privileged and as performing mental work and that’s it. This is a dated official truth. 

It’s true, we, young academics, often have mac computers which are expensive, a nice pair of glasses, a often modern place to go and get work done, and have powerful methods of study.  We are able to speak and write in different languages, and often travel a lot. But based on the work I have done documenting not only my daily life being an academic precarious worker, but dialoguing with others in similar situations in different cities of Europe and Latin America, I can’t help but wonder if this is some kind of glamorous precariousness, in the current market-led higher education. I wonder what my colleagues think of this phrasing. 

Before getting more and more involved with the itdUPM (never mind the numbering on the pictures, it’s all mixed up),

one of the places I went working at in Madrid was the Medialab Prado. As always, I carried my equipment or “essential kit” with me (you can find more tidy ones in a photo project on “portable kits” here). One day, the bottle of water I had spilled inside my bag and flooded my stuff. I had to lay everything on a sunny (and pretty hot) spot and cross my fingers I hadn’t lost my precious tool of work: my computer (1, 2).

I couldn’t get any work done that day.

I won’t spare you the image of my sweaty face complaining to my mobile phone camera (5). My computer finally made it.

 

With glamourous precariousness, it’s the little details. Like when you have to find a sentence to explain your flexible attitudes towards work in a postdoc application (3), and feel a tiny knot on your stomach as you have to make yourself look like you’re endorsing the practices that will -hopefully, if getting the job- represent your future work and life precariousness. The section 7 of this form reads “(Essential to the job) A flexible attitude in working practices”. It maybe pointed at interdisciplinarity, or having a group spirit. But I didn’t get it like that then.

 

This is not just as a complaint of a privileged PhD. I write about this to show how we are made responsible for our own work conditions and logistics, and this adds up to fragile/precarious lives. I think this deserves public discussion (as others do as well, e.g. Conesa, Gill, Castillo y Moré, Santos et al.), and this is why I publish such personal and even derisory events here.

Delamont, S. (2009). The only honest thing: autoethnography, reflexivity and small crises in fieldwork. Ethnography and Education, 4(1), 51–63. doi:10.1080/17457820802703507

 

What is “culture” in an organization and why is it important?

Visualizing what kind of future we want and letting this goal guide our present actions. This is a powerful tool to live and act with purpose,  and also to make things happen.

I really enjoy reading the work by people that have the skill to summarise what we already know on a subject while providing a convincing idea of what a -better- future could look like.

This is the case of the book I have been reading, Fréderic Laloux’s “Reinventing organizations“. Continue reading… “What is “culture” in an organization and why is it important?”

How to face big coworking players?

Small and medium-sized coworking spaces have to deal with big multinational companies extending to more and more cities. I suggest here a mixed strategy aimed at those spaces striving to survive, and it goes beyond striving to protect the authenticity of coworking.

There is a growing interest among some coworking spaces managers to come with a definition of what coworking is and isn’t (click here and here to see some recent examples in the Spanish context).

Continue reading… “How to face big coworking players?”