Coffee Corners, Virtual Venting and Corporate Control in the Digital Age

Coffee Corners, Virtual Venting and Corporate Control in the Digital Age.

Professors Adriana Wilner and Mario Aquino Alves of FGV-EAESP, and Tania Christopoulos of USP-EACH investigate the role of coffee corners as places for employees to express their emotions and the implications of their migration online. 

Coffee Corners, Virtual Venting and Corporate Control in the Digital Age by CoBS Editor Nicolas Desarnauts. Related research: The Online Unmanaged Organization: Control and Resistance in a Space with Blurred Boundaries by Wilner, A., Christopoulos, T.P. & Alves, M.A. J Bus Ethics (2017) 141: 677.

From Ottoman coffeehouses to office coffee corners, Man’s favourite caffeinated beverage has been at the centre of social discussion and political resistance since its popularization. Employees in organisations around the world meet for coffee in corners of production plants, business offices, and stores to freely express themselves and vent their feelings. For people with emotionally laborious jobs—such as flight attendants who must remain calm while handling enraged passengers—these “unmanaged” spaces allow the release of suppressed emotions and help avoid burnout. However, with the rise of social media, employees are increasingly expressing their “inappropriate emotions” online. For employers, the migration of this emotional “resistance” from private office coffee corners to public social media is problematic. In a recent paper, Professors Mario Aquino Alves and Adriana Wilner of the Fundação Getúlio Vargas (FGV) – with the collaboration of Professor Tania Christopoulos of USP-EACH – examine the implications of this transition for both employers and employees.

Face-to-face to Facebook

Over time, most organisations have reduced their use of time registers and strict rules as a means of controlling employees. Instead, they have developed “ideal images of behaviour” that employees must exhibit. According to Prof. Alves and Wilner, this has given rise to “emotional labour” where employees are “limited to institutionally approved expressions”. The training of flight attendants exemplifies this concept as airlines require their crews to show “modest but friendly smiles” and act in “vivacious but not effervescent” way. However, this affects far more than just the airline industry. Research cited by the professors estimates that “one-third of American workers perform emotional labour—with this including half of the female labour force.” Moreover, emotional labour is not limited to the service sector; it can extend to any role that involves interpersonal interactions. While organisations might allow their employees to vent their feelings in specific situations such as coffee corners and office parties—a space the professors define as the “unmanaged organisation”—this must remain on a “private backstage”. Prof. Alves and Wilner coin the term “resistance through distance” to describe this new predominant method of resistance to employers’ control used by employees. “Humour, irony, rumours, scepticism, cynicism” and other demonstrations that usually occur at coffee corners are typical of this resistance.

Coffee Corners, Virtual Venting and Corporate Control in the Digital Age:

With the Internet, it has become easier than ever to spread a message worldwide. When the space for “resistance through distance” moves from physical coffee corners to virtual arenas, employees can express their emotions through various new channels such as social media and blogs. According to Alves and Wilner, the Internet enables anyone to easily become the producer of images and fantasies which makes “the boundaries of ‘unmanaged organisation’ fall apart”. Indeed, it is challenging to differentiate between people’s private and public spheres online. This has spurred legal debates. Employees that post text and images online expressing emotions that break the “prescribed scripts of organisations” have been punished and dismissed. These underlying tensions have created what the professors call “new contested terrain” as both employers and employees are affected by the loosening of boundaries of the “unmanaged organisation”. For employers, undesired emotions may escape from the previously delimited backstage to an uncontrolled virtual sphere. In order to preserve their reputation, organisations, therefore, may seek to expand their control of employees beyond the physical workplace. For employees, if venting offline in spaces like coffee corners is restricted, social media make it possible to express themselves—albeit at the risk of losing control of the message and suffering the associated consequences.

New contested terrain

In order to understand the characteristics of employees’ discourse that escape organisations through blogs and social media, Profs. Alves, Christopoulos and Wilner conducted primary research online. They targeted pictures and texts published on the Internet with the aim of discovering meaningful themes to be investigated. As part of their data identification, the researchers collected cases involving the publication of images and texts by employees acting outside organisation control on blogs and various social media channels such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. By searching using keywords in both English and Portuguese, they succeeded in identifying 300 cases that became public through different media channels. All the cases they found involved employees that were punished or dismissed by their employers for their posts online. This enabled the professors to investigate the tensions underlying these disputes in the “new contested terrain”. From the 300 cases identified, Profs. Alves and Wilner narrowed them down to 50 that exhibited “higher consistency in terms of details and credibility”. The purpose was to focus on cases involving employees who posted revealing pictures, information, or opinions. The professors note that they studied cases involving different jobs in different countries “which means that [their] cases emerged from myriad legal and cultural frameworks”. Most notably, their analysis of these cases revealed a significant ambiguity on the Internet regarding the definition of public and private spaces—and their boundaries.

Most demonstrations the team studied were personal expression of emotions—from humour to anger—that may have defied power but not necessarily intentionally. Many of the employees acted in an “imaginary private realm” which was thereafter invaded by a larger public audience. For instance, a Brazilian municipal school teacher who was fired for posting pictures of students sitting a classroom with open umbrellas to keep themselves dry from the room’s leaky roof had taken numerous precautions to avoid identifying the school.  Moreover, she posted the pictures on her own personal Facebook account. However, these precautions were ultimately ineffective as the online community was able to identify the school by determining that the teacher was a public servant working for a state-managed institution. The professors argue that people consider the separation of their “private and public spheres as given” but that this is, in fact, an “illusory assumption”. In contrast, organisations consider their private sphere to comprise all internal activities they do not want to publicly show which they enforce “through manuals and codes of ethics, or implicitly, through behaviour”. On the other hand, organisations’ public spheres are conferences, advertisements, and other public relations instruments. According to the researchers, for employees “the modern division between public and private has become blurred”. While their “public time” used to be limited to their time at work, now, technology has facilitated increased interference by employers in time and space that was once private. Indeed, people might have the illusion that no boundaries exist when in fact they do.

Benefits beyond caffeine

Coffee Corners, Virtual Venting and Corporate Control in the Digital Age: Professors Adriana Wilner and Mario Aquino Alves of FGV-EAESP, and Tania Christopoulos of USP-EACH investigate the role of coffee corners as places for employees to express their emotions and the implications of their migration online.

With the rise of social media, the venting and expression of “inappropriate emotions” traditionally reserved to office coffee corners have migrated online. For both employers and employees, this transition has profound implications. In recent years, employees have been punished and dismissed as they share their frustrations with work online. Meanwhile, employers’ reputations have been exposed. While some recommend that organisations should protect themselves by reasserting their control in this “new contested terrain”, Profs. Adriana Wilner, Mario Aquino Alves and Tania Christopoulos and argue that there must be a boundary between people’s private and public lives. To encourage their employees to vent privately, perhaps the most effective tactic organisations can employ is to provide more opportunities to share a cup of joe in the office.

Mario Aquino Alves & Adriana Wilner
Mario Aquino Alves & Adriana Wilner

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