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Employment Today, HR Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Employment Today Magazine

Why matter still matters

Research worldwide reveals the strategic importance of managing the coupling of the social and material aspects of work, says Colleen Mills. She explores the influence the physical aspects of workplaces can exert on workers’ thinking and finds that matter still matters.

In this age where digital technologies are proliferating and mediated communication is in its ascendency, it is easy to overlook the more mundane material aspects of work and treat them as if they are just the backdrop of our fast-paced, time compressed and increasingly digital lives. My research here in New Zealand and with French colleagues at Audencia Business School in Nantes, along with that of other scholars around the world, suggests this is not a wise approach.

Research I have conducted in New Zealand as well as that conducted as part of a research team in France suggests we should look again at the mundane material aspects of workplaces given the evidence we are finding suggesting the material nature of the workplace—such as the work setting, where people are physically positioned in relation to others, display units and such simple things as checklists and online forms—plays a significant role in shaping work processes, determining how well people perform their jobs and maintaining workers’ level of job satisfaction.

I first became aware of the influence the physical aspects of workplaces could exert on workers’ thinking during a local study I conducted that examined how people in a factory setting made sense of communication during a restructuring process. I discovered that workers’ sense of what it meant to “work in with others” or “get on with others” differed according to the physical features of their regular work spaces. Workers across the factory used these terms but, when asked to explain what they meant, a spectrum of meanings was revealed.

At one end of this spectrum were the workers who drove forklifts all day and so had only fleeting contact with other workers. For these workers, “working in with others” was largely about doing their own pickups and deliveries and keeping out of fellow drivers’ way. In contrast, those working alongside others saw working in with others as a matter of not causing problems for those futher down “the line” while, for those workers whose primary worktask involved the collaborative construction of containers, working in with others was about thinking as a team and anticipating what each other needed.

These findings suggest that not only does the material composition of workspaces shape work performances, it also shapes workers’ expectations about how to “work in with others”. Solitary forklift workers clearly did not have the same expectations as parallel line workers or collaborative construction workers.

My work also considers the effects of digital technology because this too is material at some level. Whether a worker is regularly using Skype or a screwdriver, the way they are working still involves a coupling of actors, technology and the physical location—what can be termed a sociomaterial system.

For knowledge workers, however, working with digital tools can mean their physical locations can be anywhere—in an office, airport or car—and increasingly they can find themselves able to work at any time of the day or night. Work can easily become distributed both geographically and temporally.

These attributes can afford new and exiting possibilities for action and offer greater flexibility to employers and workers, but they also structure interaction and expectations about how to interact. This is not surprising. Technological advances have always allowed us to do new things as well as old things in new ways and influenced the way we relate to others, but now the rate at which new technologies appear and the variety of choices that they present are such that we don’t always get time to assess the consequences of using them—even though every material change represents a disruption in the sociomaterial system that exists in an organisation. The disruption may be welcomed by all concerned, but it is still a disruption that may have unexpected consequences.

It is little wonder then that researchers worldwide are revealing the strategic importance of managing the coupling of the social and material aspects of work. Even the human body is a form of materiality that needs to be factored into the equation. For instance, now that digital media allow many types of workers to work from any location—to be “everywhere and no where” simultaneously—we face a curious irony.

The more workers do not have to be at a specific workplace, the more being at work seems to matter. This is because there continues to be a difference between face-to-face communication and digitally mediated communication.


Face-to-face communication of the sort we get when we are physically “at work” is more cue-rich than mediated communication (eg, email, text, tweet, Facebook post, telephone call). Even real-time audio-visual platforms like Facetime and Skype cannot replicate the number and quality of sensory cues available when people engage with each other in person.

Digital tools like these are producing different types and patterns of presence “at work” that advantage some workers and disadvantage others. This observation raises equity questions. For instance, is it fair to use the same criteria to assess the performance of teleworkers as those used to assess workers who work on the work premises every day?

Being in the physical presence of others gives workers access to better social data and a wider range of ways to exert influence than those workers whose workplace is a computer screen, or who rely on some other type of appliance to provide their site of engagement with their colleagues. The way we communicate does matter in a variety of ways.

Already we are finding that those who rely heavily on digital platforms to connect with others are facing challenges when working in face-to-face situations. We also know teleworkers and those who work nomadically do not have the same work experience and need to be managed differently to those who regularly work in the same physical environment as their managers and co-workers and can communicate with them face-to-face.

For instance, researchers Cynthia Bean and Francis Hamilton found in their investigation of Scandinavian telecommunication workers’ sensemaking during a strategic change that the nomadic workers interpreted change messages in ways that were at odds with their managers’ intentions. Nomadic workers didn’t have the same access to stablising environments as “located” workers and so created more idiosyncratic senses of situations, but at the same time they seemed more accepting of circulating stories regarding the change.

The consequence for managers is that issues of control, creating and maintaining a cohesive corporate culture and effective communication can increase as workers become more geographically distributed or when they have less access to stable physical work environments as was the case with these nomadic telecommunication workers.


My French colleagues Nicolas Arnaud, Celine Legrand and I, along with increasing numbers of other researchers worldwide, are finding that managers who think they are improving efficiency or reducing overheads by introducing open-plan workspaces or requiring workers to compete for hot desks, or perhaps giving workers the latitude to work at home, may be deceiving themselves.

Reconfiguring the relationships between the physical environment, physical tools and workers’ physical presence may save costs and improve efficiencies (eg, reduce the need for large buildings with lots of offices), but can also introduce new types of costs.

Open plan work environments can be noisy, distracting and fail to offer spaces where people feel able to talk candidly. Conversations that may have happened in the workplace may move elsewhere (eg, online) or not occur. Workers’ sense of place and feeling of attachment to their employer can also be eroded as they are denied self-contained spaces they can treat as their own.

What is well established is that there is a direct relationship between workers’ sense of control and their productivity and work satisfaction. A poor “person-environment fit” creates strain, particularly where environmental factors such as noise are at a level that exceeds the resources available to the worker to allow them to cope with the distraction caused.

It is not just changing the “big” material aspects of work (eg, offices, buildings, and hardware) that can impact on productivity. Even changing an apparently minor aspect of workplace materiality, such as introducing an online survey to collect information that would previously have been collected face-to-face, has financial and interactional costs.

Not only does the time an administrator has to invest in dealing with the online system amount to a cost, but workers who once talked to each other about the information as it was being collected may not need to interact personally any more, so their level of familiarity with each other and the possibility they will develop rapport can diminish.

“Free information”—the unsolicited and often useful background information—that might have been disclosed face-to-face may no longer be exchanged. This means that, rather than representing an efficiency gain, the lower sociability associated with the online form filling may mean the quality of information collected may be significantly reduced and the connectivity of the workforce may be eroded.

On the surface, the potential for loss of connectivity may not be seen great in this example, but when you add up the effects of digitizing a wide range of administrative functions the effect can be significant. Added to this, if the online form-filling processes do not operate smoothly, then time can be wasted and frustrations can mount. Over an entire company the costs of these may not be recognised, but can be considerable.

In our study of a French call centre, we found that providing the opportunity for workers to participate in strategy meetings changed the climate and sociability of the workplace. Workers who took up the option to engage in these meetings spent less time in the call room because they went off to meeting rooms around the workplace to discuss and plan strategy. Over time, resentments grew as those who remained in the call room to field customers’ calls felt they were doing more than their fair share of the “real” work.

What was also interesting was that the workers who engaged in the strategy work elsewhere on the premises, in physical spaces once reserved for managers, felt they were doing managerial work and expected to be remunerated for doing so. This link between physical location and type of work served to create a sense of entitlement that, when it was not realised, caused tensions between strategy group members and their supervisors.

Finally, as noted earlier, my research as well as that being conducted with my French colleagues, is suggesting that disrupting social-material couplings can affect workers’ ability to be treated equitably and can also have an impact on other aspects of workers’ lives, such as their work-life balance, so the costs of disruption can be very personal and potentially raise ethical and employment relations issues.

These are not mere speculations. The evidence is mounting that employers and their managers and even governments need to take more responsibility for identifying and addressing the impacts associated with disrupting the sociomaterial systems in workplaces. In France, for example, government authorities have confronted the issue of employers taking advantage of (mobile) technology to intrude into workers’ family time by legislating against after-hours messaging with workers.


Why does material still matter to workers and their managers in this digital age? The answer is simple—even the most mundane material aspects of work are not innocent. Material shapes relationships, understandings and communication as well as defining operational spaces and what workers do in these spaces. Most significantly, matter matters because it has unintended consequences. Some are positive, but others are potentially costly.

As we embrace more and more new types of technologies at an ever-increasing rate and reconfigure existing work technologies and workspaces we are in danger of taking progressively less time to assess the effects of disrupting the existing sociomaterial systems in our workplaces. Rather than leaving the effects of such disruption to chance my research and that of my colleagues is suggesting it is time to:

  • • 
    Recognise the materiality of tools, people and locations mutually shape each other;
  • • 
    Strategise these elements together in an integrated way that recognises these aspects operate together as a sociomaterial system;
  • • 
    Recognise there are hidden costs of digitally mediated operations (lack of control, leaner and potentially poorer quality information, idiosyncratic understandings, loss of sociability, diminished climate);
  • • 
    Harness the unintended agency of objects and spaces;
  • • 
    Create work environments that foster coincidental interaction and other opportunities for constructive cue-rich communication;
  • • 
    Don’t be afraid to eschew digital solutions if the losses outweigh the gains.

COLLEEN MILLS is a professor of Management at the University of Canterbury.

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