What COVID19 means for affective labour and the service economy

October 5, 2020

During the COVID19 pandemic, our relations with other people have been defined by the oxymoron of ‘social distancing’, where the best way to express collective spirit is to keep apart. In the age of Neoliberal PR, corporations purport to act as social agents and therefore this sentiment could be reflected in their responses to the crisis. Over the past months, we have seen brands proclaim that they are shutting up shop out of concern for their customers and staff, while vowing to continue to serve and ‘care for’ their ‘community’ via online shopping and delivery services.

Consequently, throughout this crisis, our interaction with the service economy has largely been conducted at a distance: packages and takeaway meals are dropped off on doorsteps, while drivers ring doorbells and step aside to avoid contact. We have seen how exploitative this ‘invisible’ form of service can be, from Deliveroo riders with no entitlement to statutory sick pay to warehouse workers in crowded and unsanitary conditions.

I work in a department store. In my job, I have to operate a till, unpack deliveries and tag and price stock, like most people who work in retail. I also serve customers. And here there are lots of other things that are implicitly part of the expectations of my role: smiling, laughing, chatting, listening, making little jokes. I don’t really want to do any of this; it’s a concerted effort, its work. The thing I’m working on here is myself; I’m modifying my natural behaviour to meet someone else’s desires and preconceived idea of how someone in my position, in this type of establishment, should act. This harms service-workers in insidious ways: work penetrates into your ‘being’, your actions become divorced from your feelings and personality and you begin to lose your sense of who you are as the lines between yourself and the work become blurred.

In this article, I will demonstrate how the pandemic has made this work even more laborious and deepened its damaging consequences. Workers are being thrust forward to try and salvage an economic model no longer compatible with the post-COVID landscape. They are having to enact closeness and sociality in a time of estrangement and caution, and attempt to produce a sense of calmness, safety and conviviality which many people have not experienced for months.

Since coming back from furlough, I’ve been hugely anxious and overwhelmed by the new conditions of my job. The gap between how I felt and how I had to act became so large it was as though I was psyching myself up for a performance before a shift. This used up all my social energy; I couldn’t keep up with pleasing everyone’s demands and my family and friends wanting to see me and (quite rightly) asking for my full presence and attention felt exhausting. This culminated in being signed off sick for stress and spending a week consigned to bed.

I want to emphasize that, for those of us who don’t lose our jobs, or get ill because we’ve been working in crowded spaces, there will be many who end up spiritually, emotionally and physically depleted.

After the lockdown

However, as the lockdown eases and non-essential shops, eateries and other leisure spaces re-open, services predicated on face-to-face interaction are beginning to return.

These services utilise the labour of their workers to produce or modify an emotional experience in customers in order to extract sales. Think of the retail assistant who beamingly greets a shopper, establishing a cosy sense of intimacy before seamlessly suggesting a shade of lipstick that would go perfectly with their complexion.
This type of work is called ‘affective labour’. The word ‘affect’ means ‘to produce an effect on’. In contrast to ‘emotional labour’, the work required to produce this ‘effect’ encompasses both body and mind. Workers harness facial expression, body language and tone of voice to cultivate an ‘outward countenance’ which stimulates a mood conducive to spending.

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri were among the earliest theorists of affective labour. In their famous work Multitude, they identified it as part of the shift from the production of goods to the performance of administrative and technical processes and the provision of services. They claimed this ‘Post-Fordist’ economy heralded the dominance of a new form of ‘immaterial’ labour:

‘In the final decades of the twentieth century, industrial labour lost its hegemony and in its stead emerged “immaterial labour”, that is, labour that creates immaterial products such as knowledge, information, communication, a relationship, or an emotional response’.

Affective labour is a subcategory of immaterial labour, because ‘its products are intangible, a feeling of ease, well-being, satisfaction, excitement, or passion’.

When I go to work in the department store, I’m not producing anything. I’m providing a service: I’m there to facilitate people buying stuff. But it goes beyond that, the service is to make shopping a pleasant and relaxing experience, which comes when you feel that you are having to expend very little effort, that your every need is being anticipated and cared for. If a customer asks me where the jumpers are, I could just point to a corner of the shop floor. I would have fulfilled my purpose of assisting her to buy a jumper. But instead what she – and my boss - expect me to do is walk over with her, comment that the weather is turning and I can’t believe we’re almost in jumper season, listen to her tell me that she’s going for a weekend away to Scotland and wants to be warm, tell her that, personally, I really like that blue cashmere jumper… She should come away with a sense of social satisfaction that I took the time to look after her in this way (and the tacit agreement is that spending money entitles you to this special treatment). This feeling is difficult to place your finger on; it’s engendered by subtle, qualitative differences I have deliberately engineered in my behaviour: it’s not what I do, but the way I do it.

However, the feminist sociologist Angela McRobbie has noted that ‘in this account of Post-Fordism … the concept of class while seemingly ungendered is in fact implicitly masculine and white’. She points out that this transformation in the character of work is accompanied by the parallel phenomenon of the ‘feminisation of labour’. Not only have more women transferred from unpaid domestic labour to waged employment, but the affective qualities of their work in the home have travelled with them. Therefore, behaviours associated with femininity – such as smiling and being attentive and self-effacing – have become inscribed into job descriptions.

Indeed, women dominate service roles where affective labour is common: the Office of National Statistics found that in 2019, women were more likely than men to be employed in ‘caring, leisure and other service occupations’, as well as ‘sales and customer-service occupations’. This has caused Kathi Weeks to argue that ‘gender is produced and productive when personality is put to work’. Affective labour re-entrenches gender norms and exploits them for profit.

The demands of my role – being accommodating, acting in a certain nice and inoffensive way - mean I end up performing a traditional version of femininity. At work I’m in a different headspace; sometimes I catch myself behaving in ways I would never normally: giggling at jokes I don’t find funny, being unnecessarily deferential, endlessly saying ‘sorry’ for things that are trivial and definitely not my fault. It’s deeply discombobulating to find yourself adhering to a norm that you despise. Furthermore, it reaffirms the idea that women exist just to please other people. The fact that I’m contract-bound to act in a certain way but have to pretend this is my personal expression means the boundaries get uncomfortably blurred and people expect things from me that they wouldn’t in other professional relationships. Customers mistake your cultivated friendly exterior for real intimacy and take liberties with you that they would with an actual friend, or, worse, think it’s OK to flirt with you because you’re being nice to them and doing your job.

Service with a smile

Affective labour is now much harder to perform. But workers are still expected to deliver an unhindered ‘service with a smile’.

Conditions in service jobs are more difficult. Businesses are short-staffed as many workers remain on furlough or have been laid off. But there is more work to do: workspaces must be frequently cleaned and one-way systems, track and trace logs, and capacity limits must be implemented. Workers are also having to adapt to working in different ways which make the standard processes of their jobs more complicated. For example, returned items must be quarantined for 48 hours, pubs are running a table service, and some shops are operating out of door-ways.

There is also a tension between the congenial feelings that affective labour seeks to manufacture and the manifest conditions of the pandemic. The new safety measures that businesses are required to adopt – which force estrangement and caution – obstruct the delivery of affective labour. How is the worker expected to create a welcoming and open atmosphere from behind Perspex screen and at a 2m distance demarcated by hazard tape? Or transmit a warm facial expression while wearing a facemask? Or inspire a mood of carefree indulgence while wielding an industrial bottle of disinfectant?

This all means that staff are having to work much harder. However, the point of affective labour is that this concerted effort is passed off as the spontaneous, organic feelings of the worker. As these affects have historically been naturalised as the innate behaviour of women, this expectation is even greater for feminised workers. In this process, Sophie Lewis says, ‘a feminised person’s body is typically being further feminised: it is working very, very hard at having the appearance of not working at all’.

‘Good service’ is about making it seem like no ask is too much and delivering each request smoothly, thus erasing all appearance of labour. This is what customers have been conditioned to expect and the messaging from the government and corporations that everything is back to normal means the public’s tolerance for anything less is dwindling. Therefore, now more than ever, affective labour is truly a thankless task. Workers must conceal all their additional labour in the face of unsympathetic and often frustrated customers (this is especially pronounced when one has to remind customers about new regulations which, afterall, are there for their own safety), poor pay and precarity.

There is an emotional and physical cost to this level of pretence. In a landmark 1983 study named The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling, Arlie Hothschild claimed:

‘This labour requires one to induce or suppress feeling in order to sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in others … This kind of labour calls for a coordination of mind and feeling, and it sometimes draws on a source of self that we honour as deep and integral to our individuality’.

Affective labour requires the individual to act like everything is fine. It is not. Workers have been forced back into environments where they may feel unsafe and most likely would rather not be (indeed, the UK’s Health Secretary recently announced deaths of shop workers are up to 75% higher than for the rest of the country). Therefore, the extent of negative ‘feelings’ that they will have to ‘suppress’ is far greater: health anxiety, concerns about losing their jobs as thousands are cut, worries for at-risk relatives, grief for loved ones who passed away alone in hospitals or care homes.

Affective labour has well-documented deleterious effects which will only be further exacerbated in pandemic conditions. Sustaining a performance that encompasses one’s whole ‘self’ is exhausting. Workers also often describe a dislocation between their private feelings and external appearance (for feminised people, the prescribed presentation of traditional femininity can be particularly galling). Hothschild reported that ‘the workers I talked to often spoke of their smiles as being on them but not of them’.


Finally, affective labour proposes to create a ‘connection’ between worker and client. The social sacrifices of the pandemic throw the emptiness of these exchanges into stark relief. In its gradual reinstatement of norms, it is clear that the government has prioritised economic relations over social ones.

Sophie Hemery recently wrote:

‘Workers … are being made to travel to workplaces where social distancing often isn’t possible, risking their lives to keep the richest, richest – whilst also having it hammered home that it would be practically murderous to see their loved ones’.

As the lockdown eases, one of the first ways that we can begin to interact with multiple people indoors is by spending money in shops, pubs and cafés. The return to sociality we are being offered comprises manufactured interactions between exploited workers and customers. It is unfair that this social burden should fall on a precarious and gendered workforce. Furthermore, while many of us remain separated from our extended family and friends, it is clear these fake, perfunctory relations can never replace being united with those that matter the most to us.


Eleri Fowler

is a service worker