Photocopiers and Water-coolers - The Affordances of Informal Interaction

Assistant Professor of Technology Management Anne-Laure Fayard and Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour John Weeks examine the organisational ecology of informal interactions in three white-collar office environments in and around Paris. In attempting to build on the work of a prominent architecture theorist, the authors determine that there is a "pattern language" for any spaces where informal encounters occur. This involves three characteristics that, somewhat paradoxically, must both be present sufficiently and "tend to work against each other, pulling in opposite directions".

by John Weeks, Anne-Laure Fayard
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

Sociologists and organisation theorists have long recognised the importance of informal interactions in organisations. However, very little has been written about how the environment of particular physical spaces either facilitates or impedes informal interactions. Assistant Professor of Technology Management Anne-Laure Fayard and Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour John Weeks posit a theory of "affordances" of informal social interaction, which "provides a means of considering how the physical and social characteristics of an environment jointly influence the behaviours of actors in that environment, without degenerating either into either extreme of physical determinism or social constructionism".

In doing so, they examine the organisational ecology of informal interactions in three white-collar office environments in and near Paris: the research centre of a major, publicly owned utility; a department within a large publishing house, and the academic department of a business school.

Concentrating on groups of ten to 20 persons in each case, they observed the interactions between professionals and their administrative staff. These were observed and videotaped, and informants were subsequently interviewed, whether informally and quickly just after an observed interaction, or more formally at a later date.

The organisations' photocopier rooms were an obvious choice for centring observations, since:

· They are public spaces that still provide a degree of privacy. Copying is a non-specialised task, therefore copy rooms are almost always seen as accessible to people of all levels in any organisation.

· The copy machines themselves provided a type of "cover story" for the research. The best advantage offered by close observation was the ability to capture normal and natural patterns of interaction. Simply setting up a small video camera in a corner of the copier room was the optimal technique, particularly since people tended to take less notice of the cameras the longer they were there.

· Copier rooms tend to offer a greater degree of spontaneity than other office locations. The rooms are used throughout the working day, and no coordination was needed by the researchers to begin or end specific periods of observation.

In attempting to build on the work of a prominent architecture theorist, the authors determine that there is a "pattern language" for any spaces where informal encounters occur. This involves three characteristics that, somewhat paradoxically, must both be present sufficiently and "tend to work against each other, pulling in opposite directions". These are:

Spontaneity

This may appear obvious, but any space that fosters informal interaction must be easy to enter and exit. In short, it has to offer spontaneity to most personal interactions that may occur there. Any spaces that are out of the normal "traffic flows" cannot usually provide this. In most work environments, copy rooms serve this purpose well.

Legitimacy

For a space to help in interaction, most people will need legitimate reasons for frequenting it. In most offices, the photocopier is used often by nearly everyone.

Privacy

People in work environments are obviously sensitive to the risk that private conversations might leak out to their disadvantage. They need to be able to control the boundaries of their conversations in terms of whom hears what. Corridors do not provide this, but copier rooms usually can.

Fayard and Weeks conclude that "several different characteristics … of the environment produce or afford the three focal affordances…. Some of these are physical, others are social, most are both … at once".

The authors acknowledge that there is no demonstrably simple, deterministic relationship between certain physical characteristics or shared resources and patterns of informal action. However, they posit that the influence of such environmental characteristics can only be understood "in the context of their symbolic meaning".

They hold that neither the standard social relations approach, nor orthodox socio-technical theories are in themselves sufficient to explain the ecology of informal interactions. Rather, the concept of affordance, along with certain more traditional symbolic interactionist concepts, can help form an adequate theoretical basis.

INSEAD 2005

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