Sub-theme 55: Re-organizing Imperfections at Work: Negotiating Power and Control in Employment Relations

Andreas Pekarek
The University of Melbourne, Australia
Markus Helfen
Freie Universität Berlin, Germany
Patrizia Zanoni
Hasselt University, Belgium

Call for Papers

The world of work is in flux (Delbridge & Sallaz, 2015). There is a lively and enduring discussion about how work should be organized, and whether it can ever be moulded to satisfy idealized images of both human fulfilment and organizational performance (e.g. Greer et al., 2019; Thomas & Turnbull, 2018). Speculation about the future of work has been given added intensity and complexity with the Covid-19 pandemic. Researchers are tracking a number of rapidly unfolding shifts – globalization, technological advances and attendant new business models, demographic changes, limits in the use of natural resources, and economic downturns – and their likely impact on jobs, occupations, and labour markets (e.g. Balliester & Elsheikhi, 2018; Fleming, 2019). The concomitant predictions about the future of work span a wide spectrum, from utopian visions to dystopian nightmares (e.g. Spreitzer et al., 2017). While these prognoses are inherently uncertain, the intensified scrutiny is bringing the strengths and weaknesses of established institutions and work practices into sharp relief (e.g. Amis et al., 2020; Behrens et al., 2020).
From a global view, the present-day landscape of work is riddled with serious imperfections, ranging from insecure and low-paid jobs to intrusive and oppressive employee surveillance, abusive supervision, discrimination, wage theft, and even modern slavery. At the same time, our contemporary working world is also shot through with aspirational yet elusive discourses of “perfection”. These broader discourses embrace individual actors at both employer and employee levels, as exemplified by notions of self-optimization and the ideal worker through to agile, flexible and responsive ‘employers of choice’. Too often, rhetoric and reality diverge widely, highlighting inherent contradictions and paradoxical tensions in how work is governed and experienced by those at the “coalface” of production. These tensions can fuel conflict and generate momentum for change. In light of these pressures, the question emerges of how organizations and individuals can respond to imperfections at work.
From a practice view, imperfections leave room for evasion, ambiguity and interpretation (‘wriggle room’) which can be positive or negative for workers (both in firms but also at a systemic level). A range of possibilities can be imagined, covering the spectrum from resilience and adaptation to resistance, conflict and exit. The current crisis creates new urgency but also invites the opportunity to reconsider and question long-established conventions anew. For change to be for the better, there is a pressing need to re-examine our understanding of both existing imperfections and fallacies of perfection in work, to take a holistic view of how things are and why that is, and to devise new ways for thinking about the sources of imperfection, and their manifestations, dynamics and effects in contemporary workplaces and organizations, as well as potential remedies for their treatment. In focusing on the tensions between imperfection and perfection at work, this subtheme continues the interdisciplinary exchange between organization studies and industrial relations (IR) fostered over successive EGOS gatherings since 2017.
Sources and manifestations of imperfections at work
Imperfections at work have multiple sources on multiple levels: (1) the micro level of working individuals, i.e. reflecting the multitude of assumptions and expectations about work originating in deep convictions about human nature (2) the (inter-)organizational level, i.e. represented in competing views of organizational form, purpose and functioning, and (3) the societal and socio-economic relations between capital and labour. However, more recent developments show how the contestations and imperfections on each of these levels are interwoven in giving the imperfections of work new directions and manifestations. For example, the evidence of heightened individual productivity during periods of regulatorily enforced working from home has challenged anew some long-held beliefs about organizing work through direct supervision and control in the workplace (Edwards, 1990, Fleming & Sturdy, 2011). Similarly, the rise of the gig economy’s business models, one exemplar being platform companies such as Uber, has placed growing pressure on established work and employment arrangements (Vallas & Schor, 2020; Wood et al., 2019). Simultaneously, the platforms’ imperfections have triggered a debate about the proper regulation of algorithmic management and control (Healy & Pekarek, 2020). Last but not least, at a time where the climate crisis looms ever larger alongside the current pandemic, corporations are under growing pressure to operate more sustainably. Fulfilling the social pillar of sustainability comes with a renewedinterest in more enlightened approaches to labour management (e.g. Kossek & Lautsch, 2017) and also brings into view the many imperfections inherent to global supply chains ( e.g. Helfen et al., 2018).
Practices and tensions in and beyond imperfect organizations
Differences in work organization, managerial practices and worker experience reflect a complex mix of shared and competing interests between capital and labour. Distinctive patterns of workplace relations arise from, and evolve with, the dialectics of contestations and collaboration, consent and resistance (Delbridge, 2007). The rules governing work represent compromises that are inherently imperfect. Settlements that seem poor initially may prove relatively successful over time, and vice versa. Imperfections at work give rise to different actor constellations and modes of interaction at various levels, from individual workers and HR managers navigating grievances in firms, to unions and employers’ associations negotiating sectoral collective agreements, to government inspectorates and international multi-stakeholder initiatives monitoring and enforcing labour standards. Moreover, these relationships may themselves be fraught with imperfections, as when union movements are internally divided over policy (Behrens & Pekarek, 2020).
Institutional dynamics and developments in response to imperfections
Where organizations fail their workers, regulation by the state or civil society is required, But who has got the power to do so is usually negotiated beyond a single organization or a group of organization in strategic action fields (Fligstein & McAdam, 2011) and the networks of organizations reaching beyond single nation states. The political organization of societies and the institutional work (Zietsma & Lawrence, 2010) it brings has its own imperfections and produces results often far less than perfect; sub-optimal outcomes are increased by those complexities of transnational organization and negotiations. It is particularly the case that the more "extreme" forms of imperfections, e.g. egregious labour standard violations in cross-border value chains or the global spread of precarious platform work, seem to require strong regulation by state organizations and agencies such as labour inspectorates , mandatory due diligence and prohibitions of the worst forms of exploitation. But organizing for such solutions seems to be highly complicated, especially with an eye on transnational regulation. Based on the above, we invite short papers that aim to deepen our understanding of imperfections in the world of work. We are interested in both empirical and conceptual papers addressing various levels of analysis. We are curious about contributions from areas such as comparative institutional analysis, social movement theory and meta-organizations, organizational institutionalism, CSR, Marxist organization studies, the sociology of the professions, micropolitics in transnational corporations, HRM, labour law and diversity management.


  • Amis, J.M., Mair, J., & Munir, K.A. (2020): “The organizational reproduction of inequality.” Academy of Management Annals, 14 (1), 195–230.
  • Balliester, T., & Elsheikhi, A. (2018): “The future of work: A literature review.” ILO Research Department Working Paper, 29, 1–54.
  • Behrens, M., & Pekarek, A. (2020): “Divided We Stand? Coalition Dynamics in the German Union Movement.” British Journal of Industrial Relations, 59 (2), 503–531.
  • Behrens, M., Colvin, A.J., Dorigatti, L., & Pekarek, A.H. (2020): “Systems for conflict resolution in comparative perspective.” ILR Review, 73 (2), 312–344.
  • Delbridge, R. (2007: “Explaining conflicted collaboration: A critical realist approach to hegemony.” Organization Studies, 28 (9), 1347–1357.
  • Delbridge, R., & Sallaz, J.J. (2015): “Work: Four worlds and ways of seeing.” Organization Studies, 36 (11), 1449–1462.
  • Edwards, P.K. (1990): “The politics of conflict and consent. How the labor contract really works.” Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, 13 (1), 41–61.
  • Fleming, P. (2019): “Robots and organization studies: Why robots might not want to steal your job.” Organization Studies, 40 (1), 23–38.
  • Fleming, P., & Sturdy, A. (2011): “‘Being yourself’ in the electronic sweatshop: New forms of normative control.” Human Relations, 64 (2), 177–200.
  • Fligstein, N., & McAdam, D. (2011): “Toward a General Theory of Strategic Action Fields.” Sociological Theory, 29 (1), 1–26.
  • Greer, I., Samaluk, B., & Umney, C. (2019): “Toward a precarious projectariat? Project dynamics in Slovenian and French social services.” Organization Studies, 40 (12), 1873–1895.
  • Healy, J., & Pekarek, A. (2020): “Work and wages in the gig economy: Can there be a High Road?” In: A. Wilkinson & M. Barry (eds): The Future of Work and Employment. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing, 156–173.
  • Helfen, M., Schüßler, E. & Sydow, J. (2018): “How can employment relations in global value networks be managed towards social responsibility?” Human Relations, 71 (12), 1640–1665.
  • Kossek, E.E. & Lautsch, B.A. (2017): “Work-life flexibility for whom? Occupational status and work-life inequality in upper, middle, and lower level jobs.” Academy of Management Annals, 12 (1), 5–36.
  • Spreitzer, G., Cameron, L., & Garrett, L. (2017): “Alternative work arrangements: Two images of the world of work.” Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, 4, 473–499.
  • Thomas, H., & Turnbull, P. (2018): “From horizontal to vertical labour governance: The International Labour Organization (ILO) and decent work in global supply chains.” Human Relations, 71 (4), 536–559.
  • Vallas, S., & Schor, J.B. (2020): “What Do Platforms Do? Understanding the Gig Economy.” Annual Review of Sociology, 46 (1), 273–294.
  • Wood, A., Graham, M., Lehdonvirta, V., & Hjorth, I. (2019): “Good Gig, Bad Gig: Autonomy and Algorithmic Control in the Global Gig Economy.” Work, Employment and Society, 33 (1), 56–75.
  • Zietsma, C., & Lawrence, T.B. (2010): “Institutional work in the transformation of an organizational field: The interplay of boundary work and practice work.” Administrative Science Quarterly, 55 (2), 189–221.
Andreas Pekarek is a Lecturer in the Department of Management and Marketing at The University of Melbourne, Australia. His research focuses on unions and worker representation, collective bargaining, professional work, and interdisciplinary and comparative approaches to work, HRM, and industrial relations. Andreas has published in such journals as ‘British Journal of Industrial Relations’, ‘New Technology, Work and Employment’, ‘European Journal of Industrial Relations’, and ‘Industrial and Labor Relations Review’.
Markus Helfen is a Senior Research Fellow at Freie Universität Berlin, Germany. His research focuses on management, industrial and employment relations, advances in institutional theory and collective action in inter-firm networks. Markus has recently published in leading management and industrial relations journals like ‘Organization Studies’, ‘Human Relations’, ‘British Journal of Industrial Relations’, and ‘International Journal of Human Resource Management’.
Patrizia Zanoni is Full Professor at the Faculty of Business Economics at Hasselt University, Belgium, leading the research centre SEIN – Identity, Diversity & Inequality Research, and holding a Chair in Organization Studies at the School of Governance of Utrecht University, The Netherlands. Drawing on critical theories such as discourse analysis and Marxist theory, Patrizia investigates the dynamics of power, control and resistance in changing organizations with special attention to social identities such as gender, ethnicity, disability and diversity.