“Flexibility“ and “Agility“: Strategies, Practices, and Ambivalences of a Key Concept since the 1980s

“Flexibility“ and “Agility“: Strategies, Practices, and Ambivalences of a Key Concept since the 1980s

Martina Heßler, Technische Universität Darmstadt; Martin Krzywdzinski, Helmut-Schmidt-Universität Hamburg; Christopher Neumaier, Leibniz-Zentrum für Zeithistorische Forschung Potsdam; SPP 2267 “The Digitalization of Working Worlds. Conceptualising and Capturing a Systemic Transformation“
Technische Universität Darmstadt
Fand statt
In Präsenz
Vom - Bis
17.11.2022 - 19.11.2022
Lukas Doil, Leibniz-Zentrum für Zeithistorische Forschung Potsdam

Flexibility – and, to a lesser extent, agility – have become the guiding vocabulary to describe a work environment in transition, and from there have migrated into adjacent debates and even into everyday language. Despite (or rather because of) their conceptual and normative vagueness, a wide variety of interests and practices can be described as "flexible": from the shaping of private lifestyles and work organization to the requirements of corporations and entire markets. The conference therefore provided an opportunity to stimulate conceptual self-understanding and historicization in an interdisciplinary exchange between history and the social sciences.

In a productive introductory session, participants discussed expectations and approaches to the topic which were formulated by the group in advance. MARTINA HEßLER (Darmstadt) began her remarks with the observation that despite the ubiquity of conceptual appropriations, a compatible "theory" of flexibility does not exist yet. For a critical scholarly use, she suggested tracing the concepts in their narrativity and normativity through scientific and political cultures, historicizing their indexes of place and time.

VINCENT AUGUST (Berlin) kicked off the first panel on the history of flexibility by introducing the discourse of cybernetics since the 1950s and its diffusion into other sciences and social movements. On the basis of three essential features – the epistemic and operationalizing transition "from being to doing", systemic frameworks and networks, and ideas of control attached to them (self-regulation, circularity) – he made clear how "flexibility" could become a requirement and a promise within such a theoretical architecture. In the discussion it became clear that especially in the so-called "second order" cybernetics the concrete human being became the bearer of flexibility requirements, which was especially apparent in management literature.

In the second panel on the psychological dimension of flexibility, LUBNA RASHID (Berlin) presented a meta-analysis of cross-disciplinary literature on the intersections of flexible work arrangements and mental health. So-called "non-standard work" has been the focus of occupational psychology surveys for about twenty years. Along various axes, "positive" (e.g., "autonomy," "work-life balance") and "negative" (e.g., "stress," "precariousness") mental consequences of flexible work are queried and measured in studies, which Rashid typologized in a large-scale, data-supported procedure. Convincingly, it highlighted how the attribution of certain psychological advantages and disadvantages differed across disciplines.

KIRSTIN JORNS (Zürich) focused on the reform of Swiss vocational education and training in the 1960s and 1970s. She pointed out that the political elaboration of vocational education showed how different futures of society were constructed and what imperatives were addressed to the subjects of education. In the 1978 reform, flexibilization was used conceptually for the first time to characterize the openness of the education system and the mobility expectations placed on individuals. Looking at the present, Jorns made clear how the responsibility for a successful professional biography has been increasingly shifted from society to the individual.

CHRISTIAN GARLAND (London) presented a preliminary assessment of neoliberal policies since 1979 with a particular focus on the U.K. Following the thesis that the concept of flexibility can mask and unmask precarious working conditions, he gave examples of working conditions such as the British "0-hour contracts" and temporary work. The precarization of "jobs," he made clear, has been framed by the British government as having no alternative, using the concept of flexibility.

SARAH GEORGE and SILVIO SUCHOW (both Berlin) presented a qualitative study of remote work since the Corona pandemic from the perspective of empirical social science. In the 24 interviews with respondents, mostly from the academically educated and mobile "new middle class" (Andreas Reckwitz), particular attention was paid to the use of temporal and spatial flexibility that comes with working from home. From the positive descriptions of the interviewees, the speakers concluded that remote work could increase economic, cultural, and social capital. Subsequently, there was discussion about who can work at home in the first place and whether the "new middle class" is an appropriate interpretive foil.

The office as a place of work was also the subject of the presentation by MIRJAM MAYER (Zurich). She used the example of digitalization and automation in Swiss federal administration since the 1980s to show how flexibility has been present as an unquestioned and vague imperative. Organizational developers moderated a protracted process, some of which remains unfinished to this day, that was supposed to produce a paperless, digitally integrated office and a more efficient administration. Instead, disappointment set in when it became clear that a digital work environment could not be easily harmonized with traditional file-based governance.

TIM CLAUSNITZER (Berlin) discussed the potential introduction of collaborative robots in the world of work from the perspective of the sociology of technology. Unlike "traditional" industrial robots, which are secured behind fences and carry out their program without sensors, collaborative robots are designed for use with humans and are technically equipped for this purpose. Clausnitzer focused primarily on the promises of human-machine work in the run-up to introduction, which should generate funding, research and market interest. In practice, however, elaborate risk analyses and programming expertise are necessary, which runs contrary to the targeted flexibilization of the companies using them. In the classic assembly lines of industry, collaborative robots have not become commonplace for a variety of reasons.

At the beginning of the panel on reorganization, MONA-MARIE BARDMANN (Hohenheim) dealt with so-called "High-Reliability Organizations" (HRO). Using hospitals and airports as examples of such organizations, where accidents can have massive consequences and risks have to be evaluated constantly, she introduced problems of digitalization. Flexibility and trust are crucial coordinates to manage crises in such places. However, she noted that the formalization of safety regulations and digital systems, which is considered necessary, also leads to new risk factors and limited flexibility.

CHRISTOPHER NEUMAIER (Potsdam) addressed the introduction of "flexible" work practices using the example of group work at Volkswagen in the 1970s and 1980s. Monotonous work on Fordist assembly lines had been the subject of the state's "Humanization of Working Life" program since 1974, because of which group work was tested at VW in Salzgitter. Trade unions and researchers positively associated flexibilization with healthier work organization, job rotation and deceleration. After a few years, cost-benefit analyses revealed devastating cost increases and a lack of performance targets. In the 1980s, collaborative working made a comeback at VW under the label "teamwork" in the spirit of the "lean manufacturing" euphoria. Flexibilization here meant instead boosting competitiveness in the marketplace and strategically motivating employees.

MARTIN KRZYWDZINSKI (Hamburg / Berlin) also presented the results of an empirical study on remote work and Covid. His interest was to find out how the relocation to a "home office" affected so-called "agile", hybrid and traditional teams. For Krzywdzinski, agile teams are those that exhibit a high degree of self-organization (flat hierarchies, "Scrum") and, at the same time, a high degree of interdependence between the individual subtasks required to complete the project. Flexibility (hybrid) is thus a limitation of agile practice. In the quantitative survey of about 1500 team workers, a large majority came to remote work only through the corona pandemic. A comparison of the three types showed that agile teams are more resilient to new working conditions because they have more resources, more experience with and more trust in team members.

Using the German company Metaplan as an example, SEBASTIAN RANDERATH (Bonn) highlighted how agile work practices were also driven by organizational developers. Equipped with the vocabulary of cybernetics and systems research, Metaplan planners set out from 1972 to optimize offices and introduce new teamwork practices into German companies through "formats of microplanning" such as mobile note-taking systems (for example, sticky notes and moderator cases) and facilitation techniques.

TIMO LEIMBACH (Aarhus) picked up the conversation about “agile” at the beginning of the panel on software work. He argued that the namesake "Agile Manifesto" can only be understood from a longer history of projectization, specific software work traditions, and expert networks. Leimbach introduced American, Scandinavian and Japanese traditions which shaped different concepts of project management such as "Scrum", "Waterfall" and finally "agile". In the software industry, the narratives of customer and service orientation and project work bundled in the Agile Manifesto have gained predominance, but Leimbach pointed out that in practice, different modes of project management may well supersede each other in the course of a project.

DONALD BERTULFO (Delft) continued the perspective on the concrete practice of software development in his presentation. The focus here was on the digital working environments of developers, which since the end of the 1990s have been increasingly adapted to the premises of agile work and in recent years have been consistently developed further in the sense of "software as a service". The expansion of large-scale cloud infrastructures in software companies (for example at Amazon or Microsoft) can be seen an expression of a reorganization of the company's own working methods, which have themselves long since been sold as a product or "third-party solution".

In 1998, RICHARD SENNETT (New York), in his classic essay "The corrosion of character", argued resolutely for a critical discussion of flexibility. In his keynote speech, he took up the lines of argument of the book in retrospect after almost 25 years. The welfare-state-secured capitalism of the boom decades also knew "flexibility" to the disadvantage of wage workers who needed fixed incomes, which Sennett anecdotally demonstrated using the example of New York dockworkers in the 1960s. Drawing on the metaphor of theatre and borrowing from Herbert Marcuse, Sennett spoke about performance in the world of work. Surveillance and evaluation, time limitations, and the loss of contextualizing knowledge of work and life are all consequences of a continuing flexibilization of the work environment that has repercussions for society as a whole. Trust in each other and in institutions is, Sennett argued, only secured by long-term relationships. Flexibility "corrupts" notions of community and endangers civil society. Sennett sees an answer above all in local relationships in neighbourhoods and associations and in a reappropriation of the dignity of work through trade unions and collective action.

During the panel discussions and the final summing-up several recurring and connecting questions came up, which may be summarized here in three points. 1. Various conceptual questions were very productively raised but remained largely unresolved. The different conceptual ranges and uses of "flexibility" remain to be problematized, also with regard to the uses between the source term and the analysis term. The same is true for "agility", although here it would also be necessary to clarify more precisely regarding its conceptual history whether flexibility and agility really have a family resemblance or instead designate very different practices and processes. In both cases it would be worthwhile to think further about normativity and vagueness. 2. A de-centering of viewpoints was discussed and argued for, especially with regard to the intersections of gender, migration and the global contexts of work, but also away from the workplace towards more cultural dimensions of “flexibility”. 3. Related to this, the actors of flexibilization should be examined more closely. Who benefits and which groups lose out? How is social polarization in late capitalist centres and informal labour in the global South related to processes of flexibilization? The interdisciplinary nature of the various contributions made clear how important it will be to address these questions in a conversation between historiography and the social sciences. This very productive conference provided an excellent starting point for this venture.

Conference overview:

Martina Heßler (Darmstadt) / Martin Krzywdzinski (Hamburg / Berlin) / Christopher Neumaier (Potsdam): “Participatory Introduction”: Flexibility and Agility as key concepts of social change?

Panel 1: A History of Flexibility
Chair: Martin Krzywdzinski (Hamburg / Berlin)

Vincent August (Berlin): The Rise of Cybernetic Network Ideas: A Critical Conceptual History of Flexibility

Panel 2: Flexible work and psychology
Chair: Nora Thorade (Berlin)

Lubna Rashid (Berlin): The Blessing & Curse of No-Strings-Attached: A Topic Modeling-Driven Exploration of Flexible Work Designs & Psychological (Un)Wellbeing

Panel 3: Flexible Biographies
Chair: Kevin Liggieri (Darmstadt)

Kirstin Berit Jäggi-Jorns (Zürich): Flexibilization Configurations in Future Designs: The Subjectivization of Social Problems in the Swiss Federal Law on Vocational Education and Training since 1930

Christian Garland (London): “Flexibility“ as Precarity/Precarity as “Flexibility”: The Neoliberal Ideological Mask and the Social Reality, 40 Years of the “Anglo-American-Model” in the UK

Panel 4: Work Processes: Promises/Policies of Flexibility
Chair: Tanja Paulitz (Darmstadt)

Sarah George (Berlin) / Silvio Suckow (Berlin): Working from Home. Strategies of time-spatial flexibility of the new middle class

Mirjam Mayer (Zürich): Efficiency through Flexibility? Office Automation in the Swiss Federal Administration in the 1980s

Tim Clausnitzer (Berlin): Narratives of Flexibilization Regarding the Introduction of Collaborative Industrial Robots

Panel 5: Re-Organization – Flexibility/Agility
Chair: Julia Erdogan (Stuttgart)

Mona-Maria Bardmann (Hohenheim): „Quo Vadis Flexibility? Digitalization and Formalization in High-Reliability-Organizations.”

Christopher Neumaier (Potsdam): Group Work a Win-Win-Option for Management and Workers? The Flexibilization of Work Processes in the German Automotive Industry between the 1970s and 1990s

Martin Krzywdziniski (Hamburg/Berlin): Remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic. Experiences of agile, hybrid and traditional teams.

Panel 6: Software / Agile Practices
Chair: Martin Schmitt (Darmstadt)

Sebastian Randerath (Bonn): How We (Almost) Became Agile: A Format History c. 1972–2001

Timo Leimbach (Aarhus): Rooting agility – The Different Origins of Agile Methods and Their Contributions to the Current Conceptualization of it

Donald Bertulfo (Delft): The World in a Sprint: Computational Infrastructures and Agility in the New Economy

Chair: Martina Heßler (Darmstadt)

Richard Sennett (New York): The Theatre of Labour: Everyday Performances in Flexible Workplaces

Final Discussion
Chair: Martin Krzywdzinski (Hamburg / Berlin) / Christopher Neumaier (Potsdam)