From ‘acted on’ to ‘working with’ managers’ sensemaking when developing and implementing change practices as part of transitioning operations to a contemporary workspace. (2020)
Type of ContentTheses / Dissertations
Degree NameMaster of Commerce
PublisherUniversity of Canterbury
AuthorsJacobs, Jacindashow all
Background: The popularity of contemporary workspaces such as open-plan, activity-based working, co-working and nomadic (Wohlers & Hertel, 2017), when combined with the perceived negative response of many people to those workspaces (Hongisto et al, 2016; Richardson, 2017; Van Merrewijk & Van den Ende, 2019; Wilholt et al, 2016) suggests the need to consider how managers lead the change from traditional workspaces to these new ones. This case study therefore explores the sensemaking process of middle managers as they interpreted and then developed and implemented change practices for the transition of people and operations to an activity-based workspace. The aim of the study was to gain insights into managers’ experience of the change process and to generate recommendations for other organisations that may be contemplating transitioning their operations into a contemporary workspace.
Methods: A qualitative exploratory research design aligned to the interpretive paradigm was implemented in order to collect the data for this research. A case study mode of inquiry was selected to ensure the focus was on the experiences of different managers going through the same change, rather than on the workspace change itself, and the variations that that might cause. Seven middle managers, representing both academic and professional staff for the case study organisation, a college at a New Zealand university, were interviewed separately using semi-structured interview techniques to collect their accounts, which were then transcribed and analysed in-depth using an inductive approach.
Results: The analysis found that the workspace change was largely perceived as negative by academics, who were fundamentally opposed to it. This negativity created the context for managing the change and for managers’ sensemaking. This sensemaking was found to revolve around two major themes. First, middle managers responded to this change by identifying their own “ideal change practices”, rooted in their experience-based sense of what constitutes professional practice; specifically, how they approached managing generally, how they supported the change, how they contextualised the change and its impact on their teams, and how they realised the change, responding to the learnings from the reality of the process and evolving practices as needed.
The second theme identified was the managers’ “agency during the change”, specifically their ability to enact their ideal change practices, and in particular their roles in determining the change and the change practices used for the change. In the pre-move period when the workspace existed only as a ‘planned’ space, managers experienced a top-down and centralised change approach that did not allow them to follow their ideal change practices. The result was that these managers framed the change management process in terms of what ‘could have’, ‘would have’, or ‘should have’ been done as they were ‘acted on’. In the move and post-move period, agency was mixed as they and their teams moved into the space, experienced it, and started wanting to change it but still had to deal with the ‘planned’ space within the ‘lived’ space that constrained and shaped their change practices. The result was a change experience of ‘working with’ the workspace, where middle managers took action where they could, responding to and adjusting the workspace that they had not been able to own or shape when it was a ‘planned’ space in the pre-move period. At the same time, they also had to assess and incorporate the limits of their control into their overall change practices.
Contributions: The two main contributions are, first, that managers’ agency during the planning phase of the change shaped, and in this case limited, their ability to lead authentically, which then had effects throughout the change process. Second, the ownership of the workspace helped determine the level of agency managers had, and hence their ability to lead authentically. Because of their inability to lead authentically and in line with how they typically managed, their change practices in the pre-move period created a history among team members that affected managers in the move and post-move periods when they were able to gain some agency and were able to lead more authentically. Managers risked being seen as inauthentic, and even if managers were not individually deemed to be inauthentic, the change process and the organisation were often seen as such by staff. Managers needed to take this perception into account when developing and implementing their own change practices.
Analysis showed that ownership or appropriation (Dale, 2005) of the workspace helped determined who had agency. Workspace in this context was defined more broadly than just the physical aspects, also including four other aspects, from the practices allowed within the workspace, to the principles that dictated behaviour and use of the workspace, to the project processes used to deliver the workspace, and finally to the change processes used to let people experience, and therefore attribute meaning and value, to the workspace. In the pre-move period, ownership of all aspects of the workspace was top-down, resulting in managers’ perception that they had no agency to determine the change or the change practices. In the move and post-move periods, ownership was mixed as people moved into and wanted to change the workspace aspects, which managers perceived as requiring them to act to address this feedback, while the ‘planned’ space still existed in the ‘lived’ space, constraining and shaping the change practices that could be used.
Conclusion: This study highlights the importance of empowering managers, particularly middle managers, during change, by involving them in selecting change practices and directing change processes. Change disrupts operations in the pre-change context as the new context is designed and communicated. The middle manager has responsibility for operations in both contexts and the deep knowledge needed to assess the implications of changing from one to the other. Managers’ sense of professional self or their professional practice, in addition to this understanding of the pre-change context and the implications of changing that context, can be leveraged by giving them agency to act authentically so they can match change practices to the nature of the change. Not giving them the agency during the change to act authentically risks the change, the change process, and potentially the manager being perceived as inauthentic, or for people to mistrust any or all of these elements, which can make further change management difficult.