Research Findings

Waging war from remote cubicles: how workers cope with technologies that disrupt the meaning and morality of their work

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August 25, 2022

In a recent study, we conducted an inductive study of military personnel operating drones for the U.S. Air Force to understand how workers experience and respond to emerging technologies.

The introduction of drone technology in the U.S Air Force has fundamentally changed traditional warfare. The drone program has removed the need for direct physical deployment of personnel to an active war zone and instead have operators stationed in remote command centers in the US to remotely control drones from afar. In other words, drones have “unmanned” the aircraft.

By drawing on a set of 43 unsolicited personal diaries of those involved, paired with interviews with the diarists to understand their experiences, archival material and ethnographical observations in the field, we address how an emerging technology can prompt changes in the core meaning, and values of work.

One of the key findings illustrate how the drone technology has revolutionized warfare by dissolving traditional boundaries between work and personal life, by redefining the moral parameters of work, and by allowing “distanciated intimacy” – a remote social bonding that military personnel achieve with their potential targets through peeking into their mundane lives they observe for extended periods on their computer screens. This is illustrated in the following quote by one of the soldiers:

“It is a surreal feeling the moment you step out of the control room. Within minutes you are no longer in a combat zone but on your way back home to your family in peaceful America. Maybe doing a quick stop at Walmart to pick up groceries for the BBQ planned or get a slushy. Minutes before you were gathering intel in Pakistan. This transition is the hardest part of the job because one has no such switch button in the head to change from being in Pakistan to your daughter’s birthday party.“

Drone technology, with its remote piloting of unmanned vehicles, remote-split (distributed) operations, and interaction through iconic representations of people and objects on screen, brought changes in the core meaning, and values of work associated with being a solder. These meanings and values no longer served to guide behaviors once the technology had fundamentally transformed the nature of work. However, different workers respond to a change in the nature of their work depends on their experience with the organization and their level of commitment to it. Workers may identify in conflicting ways with the new meanings, and values of work, which elicits emotional ambivalence.

In our case, workers identified both positively and negatively with the new meanings and values associated with drone warfare. This made them feel conflicted about the notion of what was morally right and wrong. We identify four different strategies used by drone operators to deal with their emotional ambivalence: disregard problematic issues by focusing on the core safeguarding values of being a soldier; reframing this new work as a force for good  (save the worlds from evil) outside its narrow mission; focusing only on the job at hand by accepting “things” as simply part of the job; and estrangement that leads to exit. 14 of the studied drone operators left the organization after finding none of the strategies viable to continue serving.

The first strategy we identified, unconditional re-identification, is for workers to disregard the ambivalence they feel about their work and to hold onto their organizational mission. Here they tend to “ignore and override” and abide by the ethos of their profession falling back on their military socialization and on the doctrine that they should follow orders, “not ask questions,” and remain unswervingly loyal.

Our second strategy, reconciled identification, illuminates how individuals initially experience a void in what it means to be professional soldier. They then attempt to reconstruct new meaning around the transformed nature of their work and recast the doubts or disturbing feelings to restore a positive sense of self. In our case, service members focused on how drones brought stability and peace to the region; they regarded them as being no worse than conventional weapons and saw them as even having some advantages, such as surgical precision, lower collateral damage, and reduced risk.

With regard to the third strategy, sidestepping identification), individuals sought meaning not in the work itself but in the personal benefits they derive from it. They compartmentalize their emotions by focusing on the tasks at hand, circumventing identity concerns and not dwelling on the deeper personal meaning of their work

With the final strategy, estrangement, those who simply cannot cope with the new way of working sever their ties and leave the organization. Such a strategy is considered to be the last resort when all other strategies have proven inadequate for coping with the emotional conflict and moral justifiability. In our case, only a few experienced workers, but almost all the new workers, left the military.

In sum, we illustrate emerging technologies disrupt the meaning and moral values of work and evoke different emotional responses in workers. We show how technologies can problematize the meaning and morality of work and evoke feelings about right and wrong. We also explain how workers respond to a new remote warfare technology that allows them to manipulate distant objects through iconic representations on computer screens. We extend prior work by explaining how remote control may not just disrupt trust and power hierarchies in the workplace but can also interfere with people’s ability to abide by their values. Restoring meaning to their work in the new working environment is not just a cognitive but also an affective process.

We show the value of unsolicited personal diaries that military personnel maintained in capturing the strong emotions they experienced but try to control, regulate, or suppress at work. Diaries are known to be a coping mechanism to deal with difficult experiences and emotional turmoil. Diaries serve as a complement to interviewing and observing people’s behaviors when one is seeking to capture the innermost emotions of those individuals and to decode non-verbal emotional cues not observable in behaviors.

Read more

Madeleine Rauch and Shahzad Ansari. “Waging War from Remote Cubicles: How Workers Cope with Technologies That Disrupt the Meaning and Morality of Their Work” in Organization Science 2021.

Image: ArtTower via Pixabay

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