Sunday, 18 March 2018

Invisible work

I have been on strike for much of the past four weeks – at least notionally. The truth is more nuanced than that, because I don't actually want my students and other junior colleagues to be disadvantaged by this action. I am, after all, fighting for the future of university education: their future. Yet I do want senior management and the powerful people who make decisions about our work and our pensions to be aware of the strength of feeling, as well as the rational arguments, around the pensions issue.

There have been some excellent analyses of the problem, by academic experts from a range of disciplines. Here are some of my favorites (in no particular order):
As well as standing on picket lines, marching, discussing the issues around the strike, and not doing work that involves crossing said picket lines, I have continued to do a substantial amount of work. It has made me think more about the nature of invisible work. Bonnie Nardi and Yrjo Engestrom identify four kinds of invisible work:
  1. work done in invisible places, such as the highly skilled behind-the-scenes work of reference librarians; to this I would add most of the invisible work done by university staff, out of sight and out of hours.
  2. work defined as routine or manual that actually requires considerable problem solving and knowledge, such as the work of telephone operators; don't forget completing a ResearchFish submission or grappling with the Virtual Learning Environment or many other enterprise software systems.
  3. work done by invisible people such as domestics, (and sometimes Athena SWAN teams!)
  4. informal work processes that are not part of anybody’s job description but which are crucial for the collective functioning of the workplace, such as regular but open-ended meetings without a specific agenda, informal conversations, gossip, humor, storytelling.
The time for (4) has been sadly eroded over the years as demands and expectations have risen without corresponding rises in resourcing.

To these, I would add the invisible work that is invisible because it is apparently ineffectual. E.g., I wrote to our Provost about 12 days ago, but I have no evidence that it was read; it certainly hasn't been responded to in any visible way (reproduced below for the record).

The double-think required to simultaneously be on strike while also delivering on time-limited commitments to colleagues and students has forced me to also develop new approaches to revealing and hiding work. For example, 
  • I have started logging my own work hours so that the accumulated time is visible to me, and although I've been working way more than the hours set out in the Working Time Directive, I'm going to try to bring the time worked down to comply with that directive. This should help me say "no" more assertively in future. That's the theory, at least...
  • I have started saving emails as drafts so as not to send them "out of hours". There are 21 items in my email outbox as I type this; I'll look incredibly productive first thing on Monday morning!
And finally, I will make visible the letter I wrote to the Provost:

Thank you for this encouraging message last week. You are right that none of us takes strike action lightly. We all want to be doing and supporting excellent teaching, research and knowledge transfer, but we are extremely concerned about the proposed pension changes, and we have found no other way to be heard.

I’ve worked in universities since 1981 and this is the first time I have taken strike action. The decision to strike has been one of the harder decisions I have taken in my professional career, but I think the impact of the proposed pension changes on our junior colleagues (and hence on the future of universities) is unacceptable, and I am not persuaded that a DB scheme is unaffordable.

Please continue to work with the other university leaders to find an early resolution to this dispute. UCL isn’t just estates and financial surplus: as you say, it’s a community of world-leading, committed people who work really hard, and who merit an overall remuneration package that is reflective of that. That includes pensions that aren’t a stock market lottery for each individual.

I’d like to be in my office meeting PhD students and post-docs next Monday morning, and in a lecture theatre with my MSc students on Monday afternoon. Please do everything in your power to bring this dispute to a quick resolution so that there’s a real possibility that “normal service” can be resumed next week.


  1. Hi Ann, A really minor point but I use MailButler to queue up emails to send at a specified time to avoid sending them out of hours and also avoid having to remember to send the ones in my outbox. Sorry for a tech reply rather than a substantive one but I hope it helps.

    1. Thanks. I'll check that out. The previous feature I used to time sending only worked if my laptop was open at the scheduled time; otherwise the messages just lurked in my outbox, forgotten indefinitely...

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