Petriglieri, Ashford & Wrzesniewski (2018). Agony and Ecstasy in the Gig Economy: Cultivating Holding Environments for Precarious and Personalized Work Identities

Gianpiero Petriglieri – INSEAD
Susan Ashford – University of Michigan, Ross School of Business
Amy Wrzesniewski – Yale School of Management

Audrey Holm – Boston University, Questrom School of Business
Greg Fetzer – Boston College, Carroll School of Management

Article link:

Question 1. Your methods section reveals a highly interdependent research process; this could especially be challenging given your geographical distance. How did you come to collaborate on this project? What would your advice be for a successful collaboration? More generally, what was the biggest challenge in this project?

Every creative collaboration is a labor of love, and indeed both labor and love require presence. However, presence does not always have to be geographically bound. What was more important for us was to be present both practically, that is, to answer promptly to the many, many emails that went back and forth across the Atlantic, and psychologically, that is, to listen to the concerns and suggestions that each of us had in the process.

It did help that we built our virtual work on a strong foundation of familiarity built face to face. We knew what to expect from each other, and we could be open about what we wanted from each other. Furthermore, we were not always working remotely. We had intense periods, days at a time, when we sat in the same room developing our initial theorizing or puzzling over interviews, reviewers’ comments. Then we went back and forth on email and Skype, and, to the extent that we were able to, tried to keep each other in mind. We tried to be, for each other, the kind of generative, holding connections that informants in our study described.

In short, working on this paper allowed us to share in some small way the experience of the independent workers we studied. We were often alone working on it, but we strived to stay connected through it.

Question 2.  We were very interested in your use of and contribution to systems psychodynamics. How did you determine that this was the right interpretive lens for your analysis? What would your recommendations be for scholars seeking to draw on theoretical or analytical frameworks less commonly used in management research?

In inductive research, sometimes the data longs for a framework that sets a theory free. And since frameworks do not walk around to meet data, authors have to do it on their behalf. That is what happened with this project. Sue had started interviewing independent workers long before Amy and Gianpiero got involved and had written drafts of prior papers. But various other interpretive frames that captured the experience and behavior of those informants seemed to miss a layer of meaning. Eventually, Sue thought it might be interesting to look at their experiences from a lens that put as much focus on emotions as it did on cognition, and that is what systems psychodynamics is particularly well suited to.

Gianpiero had done prior work using that lens, and Amy on meaning and connections to work and others, so it was really the three of us coming together that made it possible to look at the data in all their richness, and unearth the existential struggle that underpinned the informants’ thoughts and actions. Suddenly the theorizing began to explain why people thought and felt and acted a certain way as independent workers, not just how they did independent work. That is how we knew systems psychodynamics was “right:” it helped us move past description, and towards theorizing.

The advice then, is fairly straightforward. In doing inductive research, what matters is not the popularity of a particular theoretical framework, but it is what the framework, that lens, allows you to “see” in the data. Ultimately, that is what matters to reviewers and readers — and getting that right was an enormous catalyst for crystallizing our theoretical insights.

Question 3. Many occupations you described seem associated with strong occupational or professional cultures, like artists, consultants or IT workers. You also mention this aspect as an interesting avenue for future research. Did you find that your informants’ occupational membership influenced the emotions, routines, spaces, people and purpose they described? What would your recommendations be for scholars interested in this topic?

Undoubtedly there were elements of the informants’ occupational cultures that helped them endure some difficult aspects of their daily experiences, though this did not emerge as a strong theme in our data. For example, we initially thought to divide our sample between those in occupations where workers have worked in an independent style for generations (e.g. artists and novelists) and those where workers were only starting to work in this style more recently (e.g. some of our independent consultants, graphic designers etc.). But we found that the problems faced were actually universal: how to feel “one of something,” even while remaining, most days, alone. In fact, we were struck by the relative silence of our informants about the ways in which the occupational culture informed the experience of working this way. In this one data set, it didn’t seem to matter much.

Question 4. Your participants described a “caricature” of organization that they used to reassure themselves about independent work. How did you distinguish what people meant by “organizations”? Were there nuances in the way that they talked about organizations?

Reviewers asked us this question, too. The truth is, there was not much nuance, or not as much as one might expect. We tried to explain this peculiarity of our data, in the paper, as an important feature of informants’ experience. When they spoke of organizations, they usually referred to work organizations, and described fairly stifling bureaucracies, where one nevertheless got stable pay and reliable support. Once you could get money and support elsewhere, you didn’t really need them. Viewing organizations this way was common, whether the person so describing it had worked in an organization previously or not. Organizations were described as ghosts of sorts—mildly familiar, vaguely contoured, and scary— a description that reassured them that they were in the nuanced, and varied, world of aliveness at work.

Question 5. The ways independent workers described emotions and identity work seemed relevant to many work contexts, both within and outside organizations. For example, we found many connections in your findings to academic life. How do you think these findings apply to people who work in organizational settings? Any thoughts on how this might apply to academics? 

We did not want to stray too far from the data in our speculations, since our sample is made entirely of independent workers. However, you are hardly the first one to raise this question. Many times, presenting this paper in academic and professional contexts, people have said “I feel that way, too!” or said that they also invest in building similar connections, to stay productive. In such talks, we have witnessed fellow academics wincing, cringing, and hugging their torsos in response to a particularly resonant quote from an informant about the struggles of independent work. We have had the same experience ourselves – that of resonating deeply with the working lives of our informants. With all the due disclaimers, for even the most independently-minded workers employed in organizations enjoy benefits and structures that the people in our samples did not have, we feel that our findings apply to anyone who has a personal relationship to their work, a degree of autonomy, and perhaps somewhat precarious attachments to their organization. This is a fairly good description of academics for long stretches of our careers, if not for its entirety. Given this, we have been working on a separate piece about what academics can learn from independent workers, but that is a different paper…

Note from the blog organizers: We thank Gianpiero, Sue, and Amy for their time and thoughtful contribution to the ASQ Blog!

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