Time reshapes organizational management in internet era

By YUAN LI / 01-28-2022 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)

White-collar workers are burning the midnight oil in an office building at Beijing East 3rd Ring. Photo: CFP

When we discuss the concept of time, we are actually discussing people’s perceptions of the meaning of time and how they grasp the rhythm of time, which touches upon lifestyle choices and explorations of self-value. In modern society, people work in a variety of organizations, and the requirements and norms of organizational time have a profound impact on behaviors and personalities. Hence, in the industrial age and the internet era, it is necessary to reflect on the organizational view of time.

Large-scale manufacturing in industrial society requires systematic management and standardized production, which is based on advancing production technology and reforming labor management. Industrialization not only changes production, goods, and the distribution of products, but it also imposes new rules on the body and mind. With the development of commerce, time is now traded as a commodity and is an important measure of job performance. Traditional task-oriented work is wasteful and time-consuming for industrial society’s management mechanism. In industrial societies, the standardization and efficiency requirements of manufacturing systems rely on timesheets to manage workers and internalize new work habits.
Since the industrial revolution, the human relationship with time has undergone a major change, transitioning from an economic model, based on events and products, into one that is based on time. Under the new model, managers want workers to produce as much as possible in the given time, to ensure that companies get the most from their employee’s time. Time is a commodity that can be used, wasted, earned, compressed, reshaped, and optimized. This distinction between “working time” and “private time” is considered a means by which capitalists exploit workers in the traditional capitalist system.
Three time trends
In the second half of the 20th century, and the first two decades of the 21st century, the advent of super-fast computers that could collect, store, and process information, as well as personal computers, portable tablets, and mobile phones, brought forth a revolution in the perception of time and organizational management. In the internet era, the following three changes and trends have become evident in time and organizational management.
Time online, and time measured by the traditional clock, is completely different. Due to global interconnections, time in all countries and societies throughout the world is highly unified via global trade, and businesses have reached a radical new consensus: there is no absolute time standard. It means there is no more emphasis on the difference between day and night, time zones and time differences, because every moment, every minute counts for today’s enterprises. Time is not just about money, rather it means possibility, and even survival.
Today’s companies value the speed with which ideas can be turned into reality more than the speed with which products can be produced, which is what traditional companies emphasize. Products and services are updated with increasing frequency, and delays mean being replaced by competitors, eliminated from the market, and forgotten by consumers. Speed is the basic test for the survival of small and medium-sized enterprises, as well as the primary task for the maintenance and development of large enterprises. Google, for example, is a dominant search engine, but it is not content with growing traffic exponentially. Instead, their engineers work around the clock to make internet searches more efficient and faster.
Timesheets are no longer the primary tool used to regulate workers, since more and more companies have adopted flexible hours, which allows employees to choose individualized working hours instead of a uniform and fixed starting and ending time. Does this mean that the organization’s employees have more freedom in their work today? Not necessarily, since workers have access to the internet all the time, managers tend to think that employees are always open to work, in other words, work can be done at any time. The internet and information technology provide managers with more and more reliable tools to control employees in the workplace and outside of working hours, such as video conferencing, WeChat work groups, telephones, and various office software systems, which can keep tabs on employees’ status and follow up on work at any time. 
In fact, members of an organization do not have the freedom to choose whether or not they switch off their mobile phones after working hours. Most likely, employees are required to be on call 24 hours a day, and many jobs have formal contracts which explicitly state that employees should be available and able to address unexpected situations outside of normal work hours. Managers are also expected to use mobile devices to ensure the effectiveness of management information transmission and communication.
As the development of the internet blurs the boundary between working hours and workplaces, organizational managers have become more flexible and adaptable to employees in terms of working hours, working places, and the scope of work they are willing to accept, making it possible to handle multiple tasks at the same time. Time is fragmented, and the information gathered from fragmented time is also fragmented, which comes at the expense of attention spans at work. Work that relies on mobile internet devices and office software is constantly interrupted by intrusive emails, notifications, short messages, voice messages, and other information, making it almost impossible for employees to maintain a state of concentration.
The development of the mobile internet does allow some unused or wasted time to be put to good use. For knowledge workers, inspiration and creativity can happen at any time and place outside of work. However, fragmented working hours not only cause excessive intrusion on one’s attention, but also cause the fragmentation of one’s consciousness and self.
Side effects of efficiency
The worship of speed and immediacy produces many side effects for organizational management and employees, such as the disappearance of long-term planning, the dissolution of organizational members’ self-consciousness, and the fragmentation of their cognitive abilities, as well as excessive labor performed by organizational members.
In recent years, short-sightedness in organizational management has become a widespread concern. Short-sightedness in the management context is “what people suffer from if they focus excessively on short-term results at the expense of a company’s long-term interests.” 
On the one hand, the short-term orientation of the capital markets themselves, or “impatient capital,” has led to short-sighted managers. On the other hand, the urgent demand for speed forces enterprises to focus on the present and process information at an increasingly fast speed, focusing on solving immediate problems rather than overall planning for the future. Immediacy transcends the future, replacing it with a de-historic, de-spatialized, and de-temporal present. 
In this way, the time orientation of organizational management is reduced to the present, in which “there is no more history or future—no time for serious reflection or creative imagination.”
Since the 1980s, globalization has led to an increasingly competitive job market, where employees have to compete with workers in other countries for wages and hours, and thus have to give up their leisure time and work longer hours. In the internet age, information technology has broken through the physical constraints of society and blurred the boundaries between work and family time. Blending work time and personal time not only improves work efficiency, but also makes time-centered work competition more intense. 
Moreover, “competitive consumption” is another important reason for the increase in working hours. Basic life needs are relatively easy to satisfy, whereas human desires are usually endless. People still work diligently after they have satisfied their basic needs in life, because there is no end to their desire for more. People want money in exchange for a more comfortable life and a higher social status, which means they are willing to trade more money for less leisure time.
Today, the open-ended nature of the internet makes it possible to multitask. When multitasking becomes a way of life, people somewhat lose touch with the things that really matter, like family, friends, and thoughts when they’re alone. Time is present, and the past and future often collapse into momentary splinters. People have no time to recall the past or look forward to the future. The faster we go, the more we forget; the more we forget, the less we know who we are and where the future leads. 
Multitasking is now a voluntary activity that requires little supervision, which departs from the forced work patterns of the industrial age. A series of new social and workplace changes make employees anxious about being left behind, so they voluntarily accept the accelerated pace and demands of work. At the same time, the internet has changed people’s lifestyles to the point that punctuality is insufficient, and instant feedback is universally required, or a measure of professional ethics. Quick responses to work inquiries, whenever and wherever possible, is a must.
No matter how much we hope to cap the working hours of employees in an organization through laws or moral codes, the content of work and workplace norms have already been changed under the impact of information technology, and traditional evaluation methods for work effectiveness and efficiency have also been changed. The hope that people’s personal leisure time would increase, simply by shortening working hours within an organization, seems to be going nowhere. 
That said, improvements in the organization of working hours are necessary in the short term, but they are not sufficient to cope with the problems of accelerating global development. A deeper level of improvement requires what Nietzsche calls “a revaluation of all values.” We urgently need to reflect upon the values at the heart of organizational management, such as efficiency, utility, speed, competition, consumption, rationality, and so on, and ponder their meaning—now and in the future.
Yuan Li is an associate professor from the School of Philosophy at Renmin University of China.
Edited by YANG XUE