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Gladys L. Symons

Reconceptualizing Organizational Time with the Concept of 'Affective Spacetime'

The difference between human beings and their instruments disappeared when saved time was valued more highly than given time. Borst (1993)

I Introduction

Time is particular in many respects. It is both an abstract concept and a socially constructed, heterogeneous experience. This paper complements a linear-quantitative analysis of time, provided by much of industrial sociology (Hassard, 1996), with a qualitative analysis based on a study of emotions. Specifically, we focus on managerial work and suggest a reconceptualisation of time using the concept of affective spacetime (Symons, 2003; 2005). Managing affective spacetime in organisations requires adding a qualitative definition of organisational time to managerial work .

II Time in organisational analysis

Modern work organisations have themselves redefined time. Agricultural, cyclical time was replaced by industrial, lineal time in the factory. Indeed, chronometry is the obsession of the modern age, having a major role in the industrial organisation. Time in organisation is defined in quantitative terms, something that one “uses”, “spends”, “wastes”, “carves up” and of which, it seems, one never has enough. Moreover, the nature of time is complicated by the instantaneity of computer time in the office. Both managers and workers complain of lack of time, and time pressure has become a major source of work stress in the contemporary world. One manager in our study explained her perspective: “Time is a prison. When you don’t have enough time, you feel trapped. You want to get out, but you can’t”. Resigned to the tyranny of time, managers and workers alike “race against the clock”. Is there an escape route? We suggest an exit through affective spacetime.

III Affective spacetime

Affective spacetime is defined as a set of socially constructed affective relations which unfold within both quantitative and qualitative time-frames and which are located in certain physical sites and/or social spaces (including cyberspace) within and around the organisation. Bound by space and time, these relations are cloaked and interpreted in terms of affect (which may include emotions, sentiments, moods and/or feelings).
Affective spacetime is organised around a core or nucleus which consists of a situation or event enveloped and permeated with affectivity. It is this nucleus which sets off the affective spacetime in any particular organisational setting. We can visualise affective spacetime as the structure of Bohr’s atom, where the nucleus consists of the triggering phenomenon and the orbitals or electron clouds contain the affective relations (which generate emotional responses) encircling the emotionally charged situation. The nucleus triggers a set of affective relations which give a certain flavour to the affective spacetime.

Consider the process of organisational restructuring, for example. A “change nucleus” is constructed by senior management and communicated throughout the organisation. This nucleus sets off a number of responses, which can be visualised as electron clouds built up and orbiting around the nucleus. The resulting affective relations can produce dichotomous emotional responses such as optimism and unease. Within the organisation (space) the process (quantitative and qualitative time) of change (source of emotions) generates an affective spacetime. Managerial work involves understanding and managing the resulting affective spacetime in order to successfully bring about change. Attending to affective spacetime involves fostering those affective relations and resultant feelings conducive to the restructuring process (e.g. optimism, excitement, pleasure, enthusiasm), and adequately addressing those that concern workers (e.g. feelings of unease, anxiety, fear, worry). The concept of affective spacetime renders visible an important part of managerial work, namely managing the interactive, spatial, temporal and affective dimensions of organisations.

IV Reconceptualising organisational time as “availability”

Addressing affective spacetime calls for a new conceptualisation of time, one that goes beyond its quantification. Rather than the linear-quantitative definition of time as discrete minutes and hours to be counted and structured, we consider time from a qualitative angle. Qualitative time is conceptualised in terms of the quality of time lived, the nature of time experienced and the significance of time shared in face-to-face dialogue with others. The process is one of transforming “clock time into lived time” (Menzies, 2005:227). In the organisational context, we name this time “availability” (“disponibilité”). Availability as qualitative experience requires not only a physical presence but also an affective presence in the workplace. Hence, conceiving time in its qualitative dimension renders visible its affective component. In terms of managerial work, sharing quality time means being available in the right place at the right time, being aware of, and sensitive to the needs of the work team. A critical aspect of availability is “timing”. Availability also means being open and attentive to the affective relations constructed around the nucleus of the affective spacetime. The following citations, both from middle managers in a hospital, demonstrate the importance of managerial availability for the organisation.

There are people in the hospital who are never available. Communication is much more difficult when you have to ask for a meeting and it takes you two weeks to get it, or else you can only get through by e-mail, because the person doesn’t have any time for you. When you have a meeting two weeks down the road, in two weeks, it’s old. You’re no longer there, the emotion is gone, the feeling is gone. It’s just flat.

It’s all the time you allot to the people you work with. You listen to them when they talk. It’s important because it creates a bond. It’s that time which is not accounted for in the bottom line, but which is essential. It’s like oil in the gear system.

Reconceptualising time in qualitative terms brings the emotional labour (Hochschild, 1983) of the manager to the fore. The manager’s availability sends a positive message to the work team. It signifies that the members are sufficiently important for the manger to stop his/her daily and pressing activities at the appropriate moment, in order to listen and try to understand their concerns. Availability is a significant element affecting the quality of working life. Within the management team, being available fosters affective relations which generate and reinforce feelings of confidence and trust among its members.

The qualitative time of availability is not independent of clocked time, however. On the contrary, one of the interesting elements of qualitative time is its capacity to stretch organisational time for both manager and worker. When the manager is available, s/he lessens the difficulties associated with a problematic affective spacetime. The emotional labour involved with being available prevents the nucleus from exploding and diffusing disorganising, troubling affective relations throughout the organisation. In order to control the emergence of such relations, the manager must be available and sensitive to the experience and concerns of the workers.

V Conclusion

The classic description of management as “planning, organizing, commanding, coordinating and controlling” has given way to a “leadership” discourse on “motivating, coaching, mentoring and empowering” . What is particularly interesting about the new managerial role is that embedded in the discourse, yet still left unnamed, is a hitherto invisible kind of work, namely, emotional labour. For the manager, the consequences of quantifying time in the context of affective spacetime are significant, for the lack of time generates many emotions and strong feelings. Worry, anxiety, frustration, uneasiness, dissatisfaction, fear, powerlessness, stress and resignation are all sentiments that may be generated by the time squeeze. The metaphor of the prison is particularly eloquent in reflecting the feeling of powerlessness with respect to organisational time. Qualitative time as “availability” is a necessary element for managing these emotions. Reconceptualising time in the context of affective spacetime transforms it from a quantitative commodity to a qualitative experience. Analysing time in the context of affective spacetime links time and emotion, and brings to light the affective component of time in organisational life.


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Hochschild, Arlie R. (1983). The Managed Heart. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Menzies, Heather (2005) No Time: Stress and the Crisis of Modern Life. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre.
Strauss, Anselm L. (1994) Qualitative Analysis for Social Scientists. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Symons, Gladys L. (2003) Espace, temps et émotions : théoriser l’espace-temps affectif en milieu organisationnel. Sources. Bulletin d’information et d’inspiration pour managers publics, 18(1):7-8.
Symons, Gladys L. (2005). Theorizing ‘affective spacetime’: Towards a second generation of research on emotions in organisations. Paper for presentation at the 37 World Congress of the International Institute of Sociology in Stockholm, July 5-9, 2005.
Montréal CANADA June 14, 2005