Published on July 26, 2023 in Nio till Fem
By Daniel Bodén
(Translation by Andreas Lindahl)
For many readers, words such as bureaucracy or emotions may be perceived as opposites. While bureaucracy evokes associations of governance and objective rationality, emotions allude to ideas about something spontaneous and personal. You can’t let emotions control your work! And also do not control the emotions! Or?
The façade of the Swedish Social Insurance Agency. Press image.
In recent decades, social sciences have increasingly talked about the importance of emotions in working life. However, it should be mentioned that what is considered to be of social science interest at given times does not arise in any void. Rather, it should be seen as social research’s search to understand its own time. Much of this interest in emotions and work has followed alongside the extensive societal transformations that have meant that today we do not primarily rethink speak of Sweden as an industrial country but as a distinctly service society, where the emphasis in production is not on tangibly producing material objects in physical and heavily rationalized factories. In the service society, as is well known, it is primarily more volatile products, goods such as care and well-being that form the very hub of the economy. And while the operation of metal lathes, overhead cranes or other machines and tools such as hammers and roundabout grinders were important instruments for manipulating the physical raw materials that were to be assembled into goods in the manufacturing industry, service work has come to be organized around other types of work steps and tools.
In light of this, sociologist Arlie Hochschild became groundbreaking when she in the book The managed heart: commercialization of human feeling (1983) coined the term ”emotional labor”. By this, she was referring to how workers in different industries must either control or update their own emotional life in order to perform their duties. That is, either monitoring and controlling one’s own emotions, expressing feelings that one does not feel oneself or inducing others, such as customers and clients, to feel particular emotions in order to create profits for the company or success for the organization. According to Hochschild, employees’ emotional registers have become an important tool in service production.
This tendency towards an increased emphasis on emotions at work can be found, for example, in how authorities such as the Swedish Social Insurance Agency have for more than a decade had the written goal of improving the public’s ”confidence” in the authority. This was introduced into the business through the 2010 appropriation letter which read:
The Swedish Social Insurance Agency must report on how the authority works to improve confidence in the Swedish Social Insurance Agency. The authority must also report on how it works to improve customers’ ratings regarding the Swedish Social Insurance Agency’s treatment and how differences in customer satisfaction are to be reduced between customer groups.
From now on, public attitudes should be made subject to processing. And the Swedish Social Insurance Agency was not alone in this turnaround. Other authorities had had similar wording before. A few years earlier, in 2007, the Swedish Tax Agency had undergone the same change through the wording that ”Citizens and companies shall have confidence in the Tax Agency’s activities” written in the appropriation letter.
Loss of trust
It is important to note that trust in authorities has generally declined as decision-making has become systematized and technocratic. In both Swedish and international research, researchers have, for example, commented on how there is a built-in paradox in the authorities’ quest for legal certainty and equal treatment. The more abstract and impersonal they become, the more alien the bureaucratic processes are perceived. Their principles are often perceived to conflict with people’s lived needs and produce crises of confidence in society’s administrative apparatus.
After the 2005 decision to nationalize the country’s 21 county insurance funds and to form a state authority, in order to ”improve the conditions for uniform application of law”, the Swedish Social Insurance Agency had received poor ratings in a number of different surveys. Through statistical measuring instruments such as: ”Förtroendebarometern” (Eng. eg ”Confidence Barometer” and ”Nöjd-kund-index” (Eng. eg Customer satisfaction index) it had been discovered that the Swedish Social Insurance Agency’s operations were perceived as square and ”complicated”. Many insured felt ”inhumanely” treated and perceived bureaucracy as alien.
From powerlessness into empowerment
What prompted this alienation? Through the surveys, the authority had understood that many of the agency’s customers found that processing times were too long and that many policyholders in need of support were left waiting a long time for their insurance statements without transparency or understanding of how far the process was going and when they could expect a decision.
At the same time, the agency had been given considerably stricter budgetary frameworks through a series of political austerity, which meant that more administrators in the decision-making processes could not be considered. In this context, the Authority chose to turn to technical solutions to address its problems. A major investment in digitization was pushed through in order to, as then Director-General Dan Eliasson put it, turn citizens’ sense of ”powerlessness into empowerment”. By digitizing the processing processes, i.e. that forms and specific forms were filled in and submitted to the authority’s case management system digitally, via new web interfaces, the decision-making process would go faster and the policyholder would be able to follow his/her cases ”in real time”. Some forms of decision-making would even be automated, so that administrators would not have to intervene in the decision-making process at all, unless something diverging appeared.
Technology-driven division of labour
In recent years, an older question about the importance of technological development for jobs has flared up again in the public debate. Some have argued that digitization, automation and the development of AI could mean the loss of many jobs, and that the growth of new jobs is not expected to compensate for those lost by technology. While such a discussion may be interesting in itself, historical research also shows that technological development not only has a quantitative impact on the total number of jobs, but also affects the content of the jobs that remain, which in itself has qualitative consequences for entire industries or sectors of the economy.
In this respect, the Social Insurance Agency was no exception. In parallel with the gradual introduction of a new technical platform for government work, there was also a comprehensive reorganization of the business. A digital case management system also brought with it a form of centralization of decision-making. Decisions would no longer be taken in the local offices but in certain processing units – ”national insurance centres” – specializing in the processing and handling of large volumes.
While centralization on the one hand turned some administrators into specialists, the reorganization of the organizational structure meant that the professional role of local staff had to change. The Social Insurance Agency’s local office would now share premises with both the Tax Agency and the Pensions Agency. The new offices would function as inter-agency service offices where all three agencies shared staff. For the staff, this meant that they took on a new role as a service generalist, with the responsibility of acting as a joint ”public face””.
Emotions as ends and means
Since the organization had seen that previous bureaucratic forms of organization had fostered alienation, they now wanted to open up for work processes that to a greater extent took into account the individual’s personal experiences and expectations. Therefore, the dynamics of the meeting with the visitors became of central importance. The new job description meant an increased focus on customer meetings and in these meetings the care of impressions became of central importance. For example, in an interview study among employees at various local insurance centres in the Mälardalen region, the service administrator ”Anna” explained that a basic attitude in working with customers was now that ”[t]he prerequisite for trusting is that you feel seen.” The view was embedded in the job description: ”Each individual has a unique situation and needs to be met based on this/her specific needs” could be said, for example, when the authorities advertised new positions. The person behind the case should ”feel safe in all contacts with the authorities”.
For service personnel, in line with such a perspective, it was now a matter of ”providing guidance” that was ”adapted to the individual’s needs and life situation”. For local employees, everyday work therefore increasingly revolved around production, or processing the attitudes and feelings of individual visitors. Like Anna, many service agents associated trust with the experience of being treated as one person, rather than as one case among many. Customers would be ”met” in the state in which they found themselves. ”We need to know and understand our customers,” said Insurance Director Ann Persson Grivas. Service officers were given treatment training. Crying mothers who were worried about their parental allowance, frustrated new Swedes who had difficulty reading forms and middle-aged men who became angry when they were not allowed to crowd the queue would all feel seen, treated fairly and satisfactorily. To ”treat dissatisfied customers with respect so that they do not feel treated badly or squarely handled”, was seen by the office’s managers as crucial for a professional service.
In this context, the work came to revolve around the production of attitudes of the individual visitor. And all in all, this shift in perspective meant that the employees’ emotional records became an important tool for sensing and processing visitors’ attitudes so that they left the office satisfied. A service officer writes to the authority’s internal newspaper describing a normal working day. In the accounts of various customer meetings, we can read the following:
Customer number twenty-seven comes up to me and is really angry. He has been calling the Social Insurance Agency throughout the day and there have been between 100 and 140 calls before the whole time. He has also called his case officer who has been busy. In the end, he gave up and went here. He has a simple question about how a continuation declaration should be filled out. He would have liked to have received an answer to this question by telephone. He wasn’t quite as angry when he left, but he wasn’t happy either.
As in the example, emotions were both the starting point and the end point for the interaction with customers. Negative attitudes would be turned into positive ones with the help of different strategies and approaches. These could look different depending on the situation, but an important part was choosing the right approach. Within the authority, there was talk of three common approaches that administrators could take in their customer meetings. Approach A stood for suspicion, zestful nurturing and lack of empathy, B stood for the traditionally bureaucratically impersonal, formal and rule-driven, C stood for listening, explaining, welcoming, understanding and the empathetic. Among these, the latter was the approach that the employed service agents were expected to apply in most cases.
Depending on the situation, the procedures could also be adapted. For example, if the customer expressed distrust, felt discriminated against, etc., it was important not to defend or question the customer’s experience. Instead, the agents were expected to let the customer account for their experiences. For example, if a customer was sad or angry about a negative message, the agents were advised to carefully and calmly explain the rules that led to the decision, but also to show empathy and understanding. The most important thing, however, was not to take sides. In contexts when, for example, the customer had been denied their request for compensation and the administrator himself thought like the customer, it was important that he did not express his own opinion on the matter, while not having to defend the rules but instead explain them as well as the legislator’s intentions. However, situations could arise here where the limits for how much help a customer should receive were diffuse. It was then important to identify what the customer wanted to know so that the administrator did not inform about things that the customer was not interested in, but also in some cases to agree to do things that were not your responsibility, such as calling an employer if you judged that it facilitated the handling. In situations where, for example, a partner, friend or personal assistant accompanied the customer to speak on his/her behalf, it was important to read signals and ensure whether the customer really wanted the person to be present. The agent was then asked to maintain eye contact and talk directly to the customer and if the person accompanying the customer took over the conversation, kindly but firmly explain that it is the customer they wish to talk to.
The bureaucratization of emotions
How, then, are we to understand this process of change? It is sometimes said that bureaucratic processes aim to create unambiguous and predictable decisions. But as new, technologically advanced forms of division of labour have also emerged new, so-called ”post-bureaucratic” principles. As in the example above, when the production of trust has become central to the authorities, we can see how the processing and creation of unambiguous emotions has taken on an increasingly important role in the work. Emotions are bureaucratized and employees have to rely on their intuition to read, interpret and develop sensitive treatment strategies.
By: Daniel Bodén, PhD. and senior lecturer in ethnology, at Södertörns högskola.
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