Some Effects of the Changing Work Environment in the Office

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  • Some Efiects of the Changing Work Environment in the Office

    Floyd C. Mann and Lawrence K. Williams'

    Electronic data processing equipment is rapidly altering the en- vironment in which thousands of white collar employees earn their daily living. A series of scientific breakthroughs in the late 1940's greatly modified the conceptualization, quantification, and processing of information. This revolution in the handling of information initiated a number of trends which are culminating today in major technologi- cal changes in the office. In our industrial mental health program we are interested in the impact of these changes on both the organization and its personnel. In a society as dynamic as the one in which we now live, a program such as ours must be concerned with change in the structure of tasks and the work environment and the effects that these changes have upon the willing or unwilling participants.

    This paper will present some of the findings from a study of a change-over to electronic data processing (EDP) in the accounting functions of a large electric power company. The study began long before our program attempted to develop a systematic and theoretical approach to the effects of the industrial environment on mental health (French, Kahn, Mann, & Wolfe, 1959). As one of the first studies in this new area of office automation, the research has had to be con- cerned with both chronicling qualitatively what changes occurred (Mann & Williams, 1959; Mann & Williams, 1960) and attempting to measure quantitatively, where possible, the changes and their effects. The aims of this specific paper are ( a ) to describe the changes in the objective job environment in an office, and ( b ) to indicate some of the effects of these changes on employee perceptions, attitudes, and adjustments to the situation.

    A Brief Account of the Change-over The installation of EDP equipment affected the work of two

    major divisions in the light and power company in which this research

    1 Now with the New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations, Cornell University.



    was done. These two divisions, handling the accounts of more than a million customers, were Accounting-the division responsible for all customer billing, bookkeeping, and records, and Sales-the division responsible for all direct contacts with customers relating to service and the payment of their bills. The primary impact of this change- over occurred in the Accounting Division where there were about 700 employees and supervisory personnel. Our study therefore concen- trated on the change as experienced in this division.

    The change-over, from beginning to end, spread out over a period of five years from 1954 to 1959. Technically, it involved going from equipment in the IBM 400 series to two small scale computers (IBM 650s) and ultimately to the installation and operation of an IBM 705 complex. The consolidation of record keeping and processing was ac- companied by a major reorganization of functions within and between the two divisions. In terms of pace, the whole process of change ap- peared to start off slowly, gradually accelerate to a period of high ac- tivity, involvement, and pressure, and then decelerate as the organiza- tion arrived at a new state of equilibrium and system maintenance. This was one of the first major changes to EDP in the industry, and one of the most ambitious in terms of the degree to which the compa- nys accounting and customer contact activities were rethought and redesigned. Consequently, there were a number of transitional prob- lems. These included the problems typical of any major change- extensive overtime in the evenings and week ends, training and re- training, errors and repeated errors because of unfamiliarity with the new system, and mounting pressures to meet deadlines that had been established when there was little understanding of the magnitude of the envisaged change. There were also the tensions and concerns that accompany a top management decision to invite a consulting firm to evaluate the effects of the new system on customer relations and rela- tions among units within the company. These problems of transition, along with those of final assignment of personnel and full conversion to the new equipment, were met and handled successfully, and the organization settled again into the familiar patterns of a steady-state equilibrium.2

    Since we as researchers had even less information about what to expect than the managers who were pioneering this change, we used a combination of methods to try to capture the story of this change-over


    2 This paper focuses on the effects of the introduction of EDP in this situa- tion. An account of the problems faced in managing such a change-along with some of the post facto insights about what should be kept in mind during such a period-is given in Managing Major Change in Organizations (F. C. Mann and F. W. Neff), Ann Arbor, Michigan: Foundation for Research on Human Be- havior, 1960. See especially Case IV: Completing and Stabilizing Changes and A New Role: The Change Catalyst.


    and the meaning it had for those who were directly or indirectly af- fected by this extended period of disruption and transition. Just be- fore the change got under way, we asked the nonsupervisory em- ployees, supervisors, and department heads to fill out paper-and-pencil questionnaires about their work situation. By informal interviews and discussions with people at all levels, we then followed the course of the change through the conversion. After the new system was in place and the new equilibrium was emerging, we again asked all levels to fill out questionnaire forms. These after measures contained questions which we had asked in the before period as well as those which we had not had the foresight to ask. To test some hypotheses we there- fore have both before and after measures, for others we have only after measures or after measures in which we asked the respondent to try and recall how he felt at three different periods-before, during, and now (after) the change. These attitudinal data were supple- mented with ratings from managerial and supervisory personnel con- cerning the characteristics of the most predominant jobs which existed before and after the change. Since some of the departments within each division were not affected by the change-over, we have used these as a type of control group. A full account of the change-over and the research methods employed will be available in a subsequent monograph on this study.

    Changes in Job Content While there is not much question but that the introduction of a

    computer system means a more rationalized organization and job structure (Hardin, 1960; Hoos, 196l), the approach we are using in our industrial mental health program of obtaining objective measures of the working environment independent of the individuals affected by that environment dictated that we try to determine quantitatively changes in the structure of jobs. To do this, we undertook a type of job analysis.

    Our approach to this analysis of the task structure was different from the usual job analysis in that we gave considerable attention to the systemic nature of the work flows involved. We attempted to look at the social-psychological framework and environment of the job, as well as the specific task components of jobs. The dimensions we used were designed to get at the extent of the rationalization of the system, the risks involved in each job, the interdependence of the structure of activities, and such system related facts.

    Department heads and supervisors were asked to rate those jobs with which they were most familiar from a roster of fifty jobs. These fifty jobs had been chosen from a population of 150 jobs. They were representative of jobs both integral to the new 705 system and those


    not directly integrated or linked with the new 705 system; and a few were selected to represent the jobs that existed before the new system was installed. The fifteen dimensions on which each job was rated on a five or six point scale were as follows:













    Serious error-estimate of the minimum cost in dollars and cents to correct a serious error (alternatives from less than one dollar to more than one hundred dollars) Typical error-estimate of the maximum cost in dollars and cents to correct a typical error (alternatives from less than one dollar to more than one hundred dollars) Slow-up production-estimate of maximum cost in time that a typical error will slow up some part of the operation (alternatives from no time at all to more than one work day) Effect of others errors on job time (within group)-cost in time to make correction for a typical error of another member of own work group (alternatives from no time at all to more than one work day to make corrections) Effect of others errors on job time (outside the group)- cost in time to make correction for a typical error of other persons outside of own work group (alternatives from no time at all to more than one work day to make corrections) Absence effect-how much inconvenience or extra work a persons absence causes others (alternatives from no incon- venience at all to a very great amount of inconvenience if absent) Choice of means-extent person has acceptable alternative ways of doing job (alternatives from always has more than one acceptable way to rarely or never has more than one

    Work checked by people-extent work of people in this job is checked by other people (alternatives from work always checked to very seldom checked by other people) Necessity for understanding others jobs-how necessary it is for person in this job to have general understanding of several other jobs (alternatives from not at all to highly necessary to have a general understanding) Work pace set by people-to what degree pace is set by fellow workers (alternatives from not determined at all to completely determined by fellow workers) Work pace set by machines-to what degree pace is set by machines (alternatives from not determined at all to com- pletely determined by machines) Contact with others (within the group)-frequency of com- munication with others in own work group required by job


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    (alternatives from never to consistently required that a per- son communicate with others in group) Contact with others (outside of group)-frequency of com- munication with others outside of own work group required by job (alternatives from never to consistently required that a person communicate with others outside of own group) Chance of detection-proportion of time a typical error can be detected (alternatives from 20 percent or less of the time to almost all or all of the time the error could be detected) Chance of attribution-proportion of time a typical error can be attributed to a spec&c person (alternatives from 20 per- cent or less to almost all or all of the time an error could be attributed).

    The order of the alternatives for each of the above dimensions shows our general hypothesis with regard to change in the job structure: the more rationalized the job or a group of jobs, the higher the antici- pated score on each dimension.

    Using the above dimensions, profiles of different classes of jobs were computed and comparisons were made to test our basic as- sumptions concerning the effect of EDP on the work environments of white collar workers. Comparisons were made between categories of jobs which existed prior to the installation of the customer billing system and the current job groups, and between different classes of contemporary jobs as a function of their integration with the new customer billing complex. Our systemic approach to the job analysis had led us to feel that it would be useful to distinguish between groups of jobs that were highly interlocked or integrated with the new system and those that were only moderately or nonintegrated. Two individuals responsible for the major part of the change-over were asked to rate all of the jobs in terms of degree of integration. The reliability of the judgments of these two individuals at one time and over a nine month interval was very high (rank order correlations exceeding .95).

    Analyses of the profiles of different categories of jobs, with job grade controlled, produced the following kinds of findings:

    1. Highly integrated, nonclerical jobs in the present system-coders, programmers, librarian, console operator, and accounting ma- chine operator-had a job profile indicating greater rationaliza- tion, risk, and interdependence than nonintegrated jobs in the present system-senior bookkeeper, accountant, multilith opera- tor, special clerks.

    9. The composite profile for highly integrated clerical jobs-unit clerk and customer accounts and bookkeeper jobs-was also



    more rationalized, more interdependent, and fraught with risk than the composite profile for the nonintegrated clerical jobs of the present system-accounting clerk, disbursements auditor, stenographer, etc. The profile for the new highly integrated clerical jobs when com- pared with the profile for a series of clerical jobs that were dis- placed by the change-over-essentially a before and after com- parison-indicates that there is again a significant difference across nearly all dimensions in that the new jobs appear closer to the more rationalized and more demanding ends of the con- tinua than do the jobs which were eliminated.

    These findings, together with other specific analyses of particular pairs of jobs before and after the change-over, demonstrate that auto- mation in the office has affected the structure of tasks that workers are asked to perfom. In general, the jobs require a greater amount of risk-the typical and serious errors cost more in time and dollars. The jobs require a greater understanding of the total system. There is a greater degree of interaction among the members of any work group and a greater degree of dependence upon fellow workers. There also appears to be a greater opportunity to detect and to at- tribute specific errors that are made to the individuals who made them.

    Changes in Employees Perceptions of Jobs To investigate how these changes in the structure of tasks were

    seen by clerical employees, we used two populations of employees for whom we were able to match before and after questionnaires. One group of 88 were now working in the highly integrated jobs; another group of 80 were working at jobs quite independent of the 705 system or on nonintegrated jobs.

    Significantly more of the highly integrated job occupants, in con- trast to the nonintegrated job occupants, reported greater satisfaction with the amount of their job responsibility, more variety and change in their jobs, and greater...