Andrew Ross’ No-Collar

I’ve spent the last couple of days reading Andrew Ross’ No-Collar: The Humane Workplace and its Hidden Costs , his early 2000’s book exploring the working lives of the employees of New York web consultancy Razorfish.

As usual with Ross’ work, it’s a highly enjoyable read. Ross has an effortless prose style that is simultaneously nuanced and succint, placing him somewhere between intelligent long-form journalism and engaged ethnography, though of course that term itself is a loaded one in the academic context of the sociology of work.

The book is some years old now and I don’t propose to thoroughly review it, but a couple of features are salient.

First is Ross’ ambivalence and curiosity about the nature of what a “good job” might constitute. Given the very different working conditions of most white- and blue-collar workers (again, taking these general and somewhat outdated terms very advisably),  he is understandably fascinated at the promise of what a really enjoyable work culture might provide.

And to a certain degree, when he first arrives at Razorfish, he finds a kind of workaday techno-utopia, where employees appear to genuinely get off on their high-octane working environment and appear to enjoy the long working hours and total identification with their job/career/tech-media craft that working at Razorfish brings. Certainly, the storied Razorfish parties appear to have something to do with it, as do the now-amusing (but not invalid) beliefs of many employees that they are a part of an industry “changing the world.”

On the other hand, the workplace he describes is a very “needy” one, where emotional and even spiritual gratification are expected by employees as part of the implicit employment deal associated with working such long hours in such an insecure industry.

The sting in the tail, of course, is the tech crunch, which provides No Collar with a beautiful rise-and-fall symmetry that Ross is too good a writer not to exploit. Ross arrived at Razorfish in early 2000, just as the tech boom was ending, and before long the tech bubble has deflated, Enron has collapsed and the World Trade Centre has crumbled.  Within a few months of the good times, the company is laying off a third of its workforce and those that are left are saddled with a very real sense of “survivor guilt”. (Razorfish’s offices in SoHo were well within the downtown Manhattan exclusion zone that followed 9-11).

In all, it’s a fascinating moment in time, including some passages describing the  cultural workplaces he visits that would not be out of place in Balzac’s Lost Illusions.  I’ve got to get my hands on his latest book Nice Work If You Can Get It.

You might also want to read a very stimulating recent interview with Ross by Jeffrey J. Williams in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

As for Razorfish? Bouught and sold in the tech crash, it ended up owned by Microsoft, who sold it on earlier this year to advertising giant Publicis.

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