Why Borg At Work, Not Home?

We have a love-hate relation with the division of labor.  On the one hand, we treasure our individuality and autonomy; we often do things differently just to show that we can.  On the other hand, we know that the division of labor, with its regimentation and standardization, is what lets us be amazingly rich.  But I wonder: why do we accept borg-like regimentation more at work than at home?

We produce both at home and on at work.  At home we make meals, clean clothes, entertainment events, etc., while at work we make many other things, like pots, t-shirts, TVs, etc that are useful inputs into home production.  Yet while scale economies are possible with both kinds of production, we are more reluctant to use scale economies in home production.

Most workplaces lower costs by regimenting and standardizing routines.  Employees show up at standard times, wear standard uniforms, write formula memos by scheduled deadlines, and so on.  Communities with limited budgets, like orphanages, military barracks, or school dorms, know that cheap ways to manage home life also involve a lot of centralization and standardization.   For example, one can feed lots of folks cheaper if they will eat the same food at the same time, and clothe lots of folks cheaper if they will wear the same kind of clothing centrally cleaned.

Yes, the more we differ the less enamored we are of communal efficiencies, and the richer we are the more we can indulge such differences.  We are willing to live in smaller homes, with food and clothing of lower quality ingredients, in order to eat our own different food wearing our own different clothes in our own different home.

But the same logic should apply at work as well.  In trade for lower wages, employers should allow us more variation in work habits, forms, dress, hours, etc.  And while we probably do see more of this with increasing wealth, it seems clear that we accept more regimentation in work production, relative to home production.  Why?

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while you won’t be surprised to see me consider a signaling explanation.  🙂  Here goes.

Movies and TV sitcoms focus overwhelmingly on non-work life.   I suspect we see our work life as being less visible than non-work social life to the people we most care about impressing; the money we make from our work life, and the overall status of our job, seems more visible.   Also, at home and at leisure, the uniqueness of our behavior seems no less visible than the quality of its ingredients.

So to a first approximation, what others mainly see about us is the status of our job type, the income we have to spend, and the distinctive ways we spend our money and non-work social time; they don’t see as much of our distinctive job habits.  Thus we focus on signaling our autonomy, identity, taste, style etc. via non-work individuality, and at work focus more on money and job type status.   We are willing to be borgs at work so that we can afford to be all the more distinctive divas at home.

Added: Rather than admit we borg at work to better signal, we’d rather blame it on evil “power hungry” work organizations and leaders.  This may be a big part of why folks see for-profit work firms as evil, relative to non-profit leisure organizations like clubs, churches, families, etc.  My wife works for a non-profit whose mission she celebrates, while still loathing the executives who run it.

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  • Spinoza’s Prophet

    As G.K. Chesterton put it so well, “A thing worth doing is worth doing poorly”. Converse to the usual quote, things like cooking, raising children, keeping your house, and any of the myriad hobbies with which we fill our time… are generally things which we don’t do at a professional level, but do anyway, simply because they’re what one does. In fact, at some level, the automation and regimentation of personal life strikes us with some degree of horror; after we’ve had the idea that we’re a special and unique snowflake drilled out of us by school and workplace, the home is the last place we can retreat where we can still enjoy some of this sense- in our decorating habits, culinary flourishes, ways of doing our housework, peculiar approaches to hobbies, etc…

    Efficiency isn’t everything.

    • But why “last”; why is one “before” the other?

      • Tyrrell McAllister

        Maybe because there are fewer people to compare ourselves to at home than at work?

    • To tough to call this one.

  • Communal homes lack an enforcement mechanism to discourage freeloaders. I’ve lived in over a dozen different houses and apartments with 2 to 4 other people, and often had to do more work and spend more money than I would have with fewer people, because the others were willing to live in filth rather than clean, buy detergent or toilet paper, etc. Two of my housemates ran up huge phone bills registered in someone else’s name that they couldn’t or wouldn’t pay.

  • mtc

    I think the signaling explanation makes sense, but I think it could be simpler than that. We accept the regimentation at work because our main purpose is to make money. So whatever, as long as we’re getting paid. But at home, when we eat we do so because we want to eat, we go to bed at a certain time because that’s our preference. What I’m trying to say, the things we do at work at work are a means to an end, whereas at home we do things that are an end onto themselves, and thus we are less willing to accept a communally shared pattern. We accept regimentation in work production because this ensures we produce efficiently (in the sense we don’t get fired, and lose the thing we’re trying to produce, a paycheck for ourselves), but at home regimentation isn’t really efficient because why should we accept anything less than our personal preference?

    Uniforms are far more common in low-paying and therefore low-status jobs. For higher paying professional jobs, there’s an awful lot of variation in dress codes (that are either explicit or implicit), though I might argue that jobs where playing status games is much more important to your career success seem to have more stringent dress codes and expected times for showing up to work. What I’ve observed in my young career in the technology industry, is that at least at the level of individual contributors there is no expectation whatsoever of dressing a certain way or showing up to work at a certain time (obvious it varies and my observations are from a limited sample, but I think this is generally the case). Yes you’ve got produce results and show up to meetings, but other than that there is very little of the sort of regimentation described above. That said, once you start to look up the management chain, there does seem to be much more consistency in people dressing more formally (until you get really high up with the counter-signaling VP-ypes in their jeans).

    I think the trend is towards less regimentaiton at work, at least in high-paying, higher status jobs, where less regimentation is essentially a benefit to the employees. And I’m not sure, generally speaking, the gains of regimentation were ever as great in high-paying professional jobs as they are in lower-paying jobs to begin with.

  • Is it just individuality and autonomy, or more like consumption and luxury in general? Here’s one example: windows. Just about everyone lives in homes with windows in every room, and apparently there are codes against building certain types of windowless rooms (like bedrooms).

    But there are lots of offices without windows, even at a rich company like Microsoft, where window offices are allocated by seniority, and you have to wait years and hope for new recruits to join your group before you could get a window office.

    Is this really the same phenomenon, or a different one?

    • Interesting; it seems our laws enforce some of our expectations that homes should be allow more autonomy.

  • I’m not quite sure what you’re getting at, but here’s a way to test it: compare people who are socially invisible outside of work vs. people who are highly socially visible outside work.

    Your idea is that it’s this visibility to folks who matter to us that makes us choose one way or the other. Lots of people are socially invisible even outside of work — they live alone or rarely interact with housemates, don’t entertain guests, and only go out to buy necessities. They’re not hermits; they just don’t interact frequently with people they want to impress outside of work. So the prediction is that their home lives should look like everyone else’s work lives, though opposite of everyone else’s home lives.

    I’m not so sure it’s a division of labor thing, but at least sticking with the theme of routines and standardization, it does look like social isolates act just like they do at work, while social butterflies act the opposite:

    – Isolates are happy to wear the same thing day after day (perhaps even the same item — not just a look), while butterflies wouldn’t be caught dead wearing the same thing again for two weeks.

    – Isolates are happy to eat the same thing bought from the same store day after day and at the same time, while butterflies buy food from a mix of stores and strive to mix up their diet — as with clothes, you don’t want the people you’re impressing to have the same snack two days in a row.

    – Isolates are happy for the exterior of their house to resemble a standardized box, just like their office building, while butterflies want to make it look special. Ditto for the interior: isolates don’t mind if each room looks like one big standard office cubicle, while butterflies want each room to “say something about their lifestyle,” as they say.

    Those examples confirm. Hard to think of ones that go the other way, where the isolate is bold and carefree yet the butterfly goes through a routine. I guess you could say he puts extra effort into having an online forum avatar that says something about his lifestyle, but then we’re no longer talking about isolates — he’s social and tries to impress people on the internet. So overall, looks like it works.

    Here’s somewhat disconfirming evidence: people do participate in division of labor contracted through a free market in the home or at leisure. However, these relationships are usually hidden from those you’re trying to impress, so you could argue it’s closer to the work sphere.

    Examples: Hiring a maid to clean your house, a nanny to watch your kids, a cook to prepare your food, a driver to take care of getting around, a dog-walker, a personal shopper (someone who knows what will look good on you and traipses around looking for and buying it), an event planner, an interior decorator, a landscape “architect”…. etc.

    It’s the people who are most eager to impress others (or have more people they want to impress) who contract for these services, whereas your theory would seem to predict that they’d be sought out more by people who don’t care what others think about them and are happy to strike bargains and exploit division of labor.

    You could argue that these signals of dependency and borg-ness are pretty hidden, as long as the cook, nanny, and maid aren’t live-in.

    Still, not long ago people who had a lot at stake in impressing people *flaunted* their dependency on their governess, butler, driver, etc. It left more time to specialize in whatever they did for fun. So we’d need to account for why there’s a huge change in the past… 50 to 100 years.

    • anon

      You should expect to find the most socially isolated people in rural areas, since the rents (and the overall cost of living) are _far_ lower than in urban areas and they don’t profit nearly as much from the positive externalities of being near lots of other people. Yet this biases the analysis, because rural areas have less overall scope for productive division of labor.

    • In my experience those most willing to hire maids etc. focus on expressing their individuality in other ways, such as hobbies, redecorating frequently, volunteering, being on boards of directors, etc.

      I just added to the post.

    • TGGP

      Sounds a lot like me. The thing is, I actually LIKE routines and familiarity. Change bothers me.

  • There are socially isolated people who do flamboyant things– the outsider artists– but they’re rare.

    One of the things that annoys me about signaling theory is the underlying assumption that people don’t have their own preferences. It’s obvious that the preferences are weak compared to the desire to impress or to fit in, but weak isn’t the same thing as non-existent.


    I think it was HG Wells who complained about the inefficiency of every family doing its own cooking, and said that, in utopia, there would be communal kitchens and communal dining.

    The joke is that we have something very like that– fast food– and the people who like Wells’ sort of dreaming hate fast food.

    • anon

      People who complain about fast-food do it because of the low food quality, not the communal aspects. Casual restaurants/cafeterias and takeout places are as communal as fast food, and people don’t hate them nearly as much.

  • Jonas

    Richard Sennett`s book “The Corrosion of Character, The Personal Consequences Of Work In the New Capitalism” gives some insight, how and why our perception of work changed over time. He specificially points out the differences between the working conditions of the industrial capitalism and the flexible capitalism. Sennett’s book, however, focuses not on the effects of factory work on character but on the moral effects of recent moves toward “flexible” capitalism.

    He summarizes this new capitalism in the phrase “No long term.” Instead of following a career path within a company, today’s worker, with minimal education, “can expect to change jobs at least eleven times in the course of working, and change his or her skill base at least three times during those forty years of labor.” Instead of careers, employees are given projects, and their employment may last only until the project is complete. It is a sign of the times that “the fastest-growing sector of the American labor force . . . is people who work for temporary job agencies.”

    Even though Sennett does not provide consistent empirical evidence for his claims, their implications are still very interesting. If the employee`s personal identification with a company decreases, than why care about borg-like regimentation at work in low paying jobs? Can the internet change this enstrangement of work (maybe starting for a small group of people: the „digital bohemian“)?

    Is our indulgence in a „cult of the individual“ related to this changeof working conditions?
    Maybe „individual“ consumption even functions as a compensation for lost hours of self-fulfillment at work? From a sociological perspective it is fascinating to observe this obsession of self in todays modern western societies. It seems like Warhol was kind of right. We all want to be famous (even if it is only for 15 minutes) and we all have the problem of over-confidence. We can only act and think in the globaly shared present moment. Still it seems, that we simultaneously live in numerious subjective stage-reenactments of mtv-shows and commercial ads, hopelessly trying to be different from everybody else.

  • Vladimir

    That’s a heck of a signal you’re putting out on your wife’s behalf.

  • signaling?

    what about the simple desire to be able to do what you want? isn’t that the whole point of working, really?

  • bcg

    Signaling seems to be saying “What you think is fun, meaningful, or important” = “good signalers” and “Something is more fun, meaningful, or important” = “the signal communicates higher quality”. This post is saying “You think we work to have a fun, enjoyable life outside of work. But actually you’re working to send better signals outside of work!”

    I guess what I’m saying is: This doesn’t seem to be offering too much new insight. Am I misreading the post?

  • Greg Conen

    On the contrary, I’d say that, at least for some people, the signally happens at work.

    People prefer the gains in autonomy provided by following their own schedule, etc. But at work, they follow the dress code, show up when everyone else does, in order to signal commitment to the enterprise.

    We might prefer to have more autonomy at work (companies list things like “flexible scheduling”, “relaxed dress code”, and “telecommuting” as benefits) but employers largely prefer to pay people more to signal commitment and competence, rather than merely due to an increase in efficiency.

  • Is signaling really the first place to look for an explanation? A couple of points seem more important:

    At home, people choose for themselves how regimented to be. At work, that choice is made by other people, who don’t get direct benefits from giving the worker personal autonomy. Assume people do prefer autonomy, they will provide it to themselves when given the decision rights to do so.

    In business settings, a regimen that can save a penny per activity might mean the difference between success and bankruptcy, because (1) the activity is done on a very large scale, so the pennies add up, and (2) competitive pressures mean that a small difference in cost or price can drive market share sharply up or down. Neither factor is true in our personal lives.

  • Timothy

    “In trade for lower wages, employers should allow us more variation in work habits, forms, dress, hours, etc”

    This seems a fair description of University professors, especially those with tenure or on tenure track, most or all of whom could earn more in other careers.

    Hypothesis: academics prefer to signal to other academics (those whom they consider their intellectual peers) over signalling to the masses by having higher income, visible consumption or conspicuous (socially verifiable) power. Their casual attire, hours, and habits are far more about sending signals than are the suit and tie and window office of the conservative businessman, though academics in their naiveté (pride? delusion?) think the exact opposite.

    “Academic freedom” (in the technical sense, not in the attire and office hours sense) is meaningful for a small minority, and for most a signalling mechanism; the point is to have academic freedom, not to use it, and the greater one’s external commitment to academic freedom, the easier to obtain the social status among fellow academics associated with having an independent mind, without having to say anything against the academic grain (with the inevitable loss of social status) or original (which involves real intelligence and hard work.) Work habits and clothes are a cheap way to signal commitment to academic freedom.

  • I like your explanation, but if I was limited to your examples, I’m not sure I’d be convinced there is anything to explain. i.e. I don’t think that a single family eating the same food at the same time is that great an efficiency (besides, many families do it). I don’t think families buying the same clothes is more efficient, and they are often washed together.

    I think the better argument is that single-family homes (and to a lesser extent, apartments) dominate because of signaling, and this is a significant inefficiency. I live in a cooperative house with private rooms and shared public spaces. This definitely provides savings. Especially since shopping and cleaning is centralized. On the margin, privacy has some “real” value, but I would guess that much of its value is signalling.

  • Greg Conen

    @agnostic: While your examples hold, I think you’re ignoring some important aspects of regimentation.

    Social isolates may wear the same clothes every day, but they rarely wear the same clothes as the do at work. Very few people (especially social isolates) wear coat and tie in their leisure time, despite it’s prevalence in the workplace. Further evidence that formal business attire is signalling comes from where it is particularly likely to be worn: job interviews, client meetings, management: all areas where signalling is especially important. Maintaining a fashionable “look” may be signalling, but so is business attire.

    The same is likely true of keeping ones own schedule.

  • The standard of living depends entirely on disagreement over value, so that trade can increase the standard of living of both sides of every transaction.

    Division of labor is a spectacularly efficient way to produce disagreement over value. The guy who makes the stuff willingly sells it for a lot less than it’s worth to you, because it’s worth little to him.

    At home there’s no other side of the transaction.

  • Alan Gunn

    Movies and TV sitcoms focus overwhelmingly on non-work life.

    “Overwhelmingly” seems an exaggeration; there are all those shows set in hospitals, law firms, etc. I suppose some bias against work in TV and movies would occur just because of the division of labor you describe; a movie showing lawyers spending hours in the library or standing around in the courthouse waiting for their case to be called wouldn’t be all that exciting. I have noticed a remarkable absence of work from serious fiction. James Gould Cozzens, who never had a job except when he was in the army, wrote terrific novels about people at work, but few if any authors do that now.

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