EUSSET: Oindrila, your paper, “Time Matters: Flexi-time and women’s retention in the 24/7 workplace”, is the first exploratory paper to be awarded the David B. Martin Best Paper Award during ECSCW 2020. Congratulations! The award was established to recognize research that particularly contributes to the multidisciplinary understanding of society and work from the CSCW perspective. Your paper focuses on the agency of the worker and how it shapes the temporal patterns in collaborative work. In your own words what is the contribution of the paper?
Oindrila: Thank you very much! In my paper I propose a situated practice based approach to women’s retention in the workforce. I argue that digitally-enabled flexi-time is a situated practice that must be understood with reference to the situation in which it is practiced. It is important to understand the practices women engage in in particular situations to stay back in the workforce because it is these practices that must be supported to create a workplace that is inclusive of workers with non-work demands on their time. This approach takes into consideration the agency of the worker over working time both as an analytical category and as an end goal of digitally-mediated flexi-time. This is important for women because historically they have been considered as lacking free will. Devising a typology of the practices they engage in to be able to exercise agency over working time may eventually feed into the design of a socio-technical system that has retention of women in the workplace as its end goal.
EUSSET: So, are the women who work flexi-time in the software service in India indeed more likely to keep their employment after returning from maternity leave?
Oindrila: There isn’t enough data available (at least in the public domain) to arrive at a conclusion about this. However, historically, greater control over scheduling of working hours has generally led to retention of women in the workplace. Moreover, my initial findings show that working flexi-time does not mean the same for all women in all firms in all situations. The more important thing to study would be to see how women exercise agency over working time given that the policy of flexi-time exists.
EUSSET: Where did the idea for the paper come from? Is there a story behind it?
Oindrila: I was always interested in the question of gender, technology and remote work. During a reading elective course on the Information Society that I had taken up with my supervisor and a few colleagues at IIIT- Bangalore, I read Manual Castells’ trilogy on the Network Society and his conceptualization of timeless time intrigued me. As a new mother, I got into a lot of conversations with young mothers (predominantly working in the software services sector in Bangalore) who were contemplating whether or not to continue with their jobs. I noticed that in most cases those who did return to work were those who felt a sense of control over working time, which was not a given, despite the fact that their work involved digital-mediation and could in principle be carried out anytime and from anywhere. This got me interested in studying work practices rather than policies. The works of Julian Orr and Arlie Russel Hochschild were also influential.
EUSSET: The project you picture in your exploratory paper is still an ongoing endeavor. What are the biggest challenges you have encountered so far? Is there a specific event that showcases the difficulties of your research?
Oindrila: Getting access to the field has been the biggest challenge I have encountered so far. Private firms are not bound to allow any non-employee to enter their premises and there are many issues such as data privacy, employee privacy etc. that need to be taken care of. It took me a long time to gain entry into my field. The problem was exacerbated by the fact that within two weeks of starting my field work at a private firm in Bangalore, India went into lockdown due to COVID-19. While I am in touch with my respondents I am now looking at alternative ways to capture their practices in naturally occurring situations to the maximum extent possible.
EUSSET: And what are the positive experiences you have made in the field?
Oindrila: Most women returnees I have spoken with have been very forthcoming with their experiences. I have learnt a lot about how they make use of their resources (including features of digital technology) differently in different situations at different times. I have learnt about interesting ways in which technology can be used and how its use is as much ideological as it is practical. Another interesting learning has been the changed ways of digital technology use that have been shaped by the onslaught of COVID-19. Several issues have become crucial such as shared workspaces at home, shared resources (e.g. computer) between family members, changes in beliefs about the role of digital technology in parenting
EUSSET: You claim in the paper that technology can empower workers in terms of their agency over their working time. Is there a vision of a collaboration system or systems that emerges from the data you have collected so far? Could you share some parts of this vision with us?
Oindrila: My work is still in the exploratory stage. I don’t have adequate data yet to be able to discern patterns and come up with the prototype of a system design. I am still trying to gain a granular understanding of how women use particular features of digital technology in particular situations to exercise agency over working time. For instance, in which situation do they indicate unavailability on their calendars, when do they stick to it, under what situations can they be forthright about their unavailability due to childcare/domestic work responsibilities and in what way does the design of the calendar, firm policy etc. support all of this. Based both on existing literature and preliminary interviews, the way I look at the problem at this juncture, points to a need to create a socio- technical system that is agile, appreciative of pluralism and responsive to feedback at the level of individual employees. I am exploring some of the literature on complex adaptive systems to see whether it is possible to use the data I gather from naturally occurring situations to steer social practices and/or redesign or reuse technological features to enhance worker’s agency over working time. However, as I mentioned already, all this is still in the exploratory stage.
EUSSET: I am curious to learn more about the results of your research. What are the follow-ups to be expected?
Oindrila: I am in touch with the respondents from my field. I have been speaking with them over the telephone at regular intervals as well as asking them to share pictures of themselves when they are working. Unfortunately, the response rate has not been very encouraging. In the exploratory papers session at ECSCW 2020, I have got some very helpful suggestions for alternative methods that I could use to get data from my respondents. I plan to try implementing these methods and gather data from my respondents for the next three months at the least. I hope to be able to come up with an analysis of the first round of my data by November, 2020. In the meantime, if the situation permits, I hope to be able to carry out some observations, ensuring that I do not put the health of my respondents (or myself) at risk.
The interview was conducted by Mateusz Dolata, 19 June 2020