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Locked-down and locked-out: adapting a hybrid organisational ethnography during and post-covid-19.

The pandemic raised a multitude of challenges for how ethnographers conduct rich, immersive research projects. Many of us have had to re-design, or at a minimum, tweak our research plans.

Here, I want to reflect on the role and form of organisational ethnography not only during, but also post-pandemic, as it is widely anticipated that organisations will increasingly operate using a hybrid model of ‘on-site’/ ‘off-site’ working.

In many ways conducting an organisational ethnography remotely whilst participants were also ‘working from home’ during periods of enforced lockdown was easier. All work interactions took place online via video conferencing software platforms such as ‘Zoom’, online collaborative platforms such as ‘Miro’ and ‘Jira’ and messaging apps such as ‘WhatsApp’.

As the research participants began ‘returning to work’ for at least part of the week; however, I became increasingly aware of the interactions I was missing out on by continuing to conduct my ethnography virtually. As restrictions began to ease and ethical approval allowed me to return ‘to the field’, I was able to immerse myself in the physical setting, observing interactions face-to-face and capturing the informal “off-screen” happenings. This is how I had imagined conducting an ethnography.

‘On-site’, however, is no longer where all the action takes place. Hybrid work policies mean that meetings—although in a hybrid format—continue to be my focus of observation. As a result, my observation also takes a hybrid form. I have joined calls remotely, ‘off-site’ where the participants are meeting face-to-face, ‘on-site’. Joining meetings remotely provides a 2-dimensional version of the interaction. You are dependent on others to invite you to the call, let you in to the ‘room’ and are limited by the set-up they have arranged within the physical room—camera position, volume, acoustics etc.

I have also attended the physical meetings while other participants have joined virtually. This has made me acutely aware of the inferior experience of the participant (s) joining the meeting remotely compared to that of those ‘in the room’. As the CEO of the host organisation put it when addressing the participants joining a recent face-to-face lunchtime meeting remotely: “Where are you? You’re missing out, you can’t smell the pizza, you can’t taste the pizza!”

Although those joining remotely are “present”, they are absent from much of the discussion and contribute far less than those physically in the room. Some of this relates to how those joining remotely are positioned physically: on someone’s laptop? or cast to the big TV screen on the wall? on full screen? or minimised to a small corner of the screen? The norm for those on joining remotely is also to ‘mute’ oneself so as not to disrupt the conversation with any background noise. This perhaps makes one less likely to interject or contribute to the conversation when you need to ‘un-mute’ yourself first to do so and apologising for the perceived ‘interruption’ to the flow of the meeting when you do. All of which provide for a slightly disorientating experience, certainly not the embodied, immersive one associates with work or ethnography.

Conducting research of an organisation operating a hybrid format also requires the skill of the ethnographer to be aware of all the locations and platforms through which work activity is taking place at any one time and to find mechanisms to observe work activity related to her research question in all its guises. Thus, leading the ethnographer to ask:

where is work happening?

who is involved? and

how can I observe these interactions?

These are questions we would ask of any organisational ethnography, but which are magnified in the current hybrid working culture. I found a particularly fruitful avenue to access ‘data’ by gaining access to the online collaborative platforms the participants were using, often receiving regular notifications to my inbox when a document had been updated. In this way, I could follow, in real-time, the iterative process of document creation relevant to my research topic by those working both on and off-site. In addition, observing the daily practices of team ‘stand-up’ and ‘stand-down’ meetings also provided a useful means of staying up to-date with the participants plans and whereabouts for the day so that I could organise my observations around scheduled ‘online’ and ‘face to face’ interactions.

A new, post-pandemic era for organisational ethnography?

The location of work is changing, and the craft of organisational ethnography may need to adapt accordingly—if we are to continue to observe and offer rich theorising of organisations and organising in all its dispersed and fragmented forms.

Although my move towards a virtual ethnography was necessitated by the pandemic, I propose that we as ethnographers stand at a significant and historical moment for our method. A juncture at which we move past the initial short-term fight or flight response to the pandemic and its impact on face-to-face, immersive research and take a pause, a breath, to consider the future of ethnography. To consider the ways in which ethnography as a methodology and ethnographers as a community may need to adapt to continue relevant ethnographies of organisational life in all its forms and formats through which to extend theory of organisations and organising.


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