Illusions of freedom: Practice and contradictions in the work of construction site managers
Doctoral thesis, 2021

Over the past few decades, scholars have paid increasing attention to the work of site managers in the construction industry. Their work has been portrayed in rather contradictory terms as, on the one hand, one of the most powerful and influential roles in the industry, and on the other, one of the most pressured and constrained roles. The pressures have often been said to be derived from macro-level characteristics of the industry itself, including its structure, culture and technical/administrative conditions, which are suggested to predicate a particularly demanding work situation characterized by a heavy workload, long working hours and a reactive coping pattern.

This thesis adopts a critical stance to the assumption that the everyday work practices of site managers can be solely explained as causally derived from macro-level characteristics of the construction industry. Instead, a need to take into account the situated lived realities of these managers is called for. The overall purpose of this thesis is to explore the everyday work of construction site managers, focusing in particular on how they experience and cope with their work. An exploratory and interpretative research approach combined with a practice lens is used. The thesis draws on rich empirical data (interviews, observations, workshops) from an in-depth case study of a large construction company (ConstructED), as well as interview data from several other large and mid-sized construction companies in Sweden.

The findings show that site managers tend to cope with their demanding work situation by overworking. However, while overwork often has been portrayed as an outcome of pressures derived from industry conditions, this thesis shows that it is a much more complex, multifaceted and meaningful behavior. It can be understood as a symbolic manifestation of how site managers reactively cope with work and proactively mobilizing this hard-working image of themselves to expand their autonomy. Moreover, it is shown that the managers’ proclivity to expand their autonomy can trigger unintended dynamics through which they paradoxically entrap themselves in overwork. The findings highlight the contour of an unobtrusive control mechanism that might serve to discipline the site managers indirectly. The thesis goes beyond the image of site managers’ work as merely a reactive coping response, and highlights a complex and paradoxical interplay between micro-level practices and macro-level conditions that has hitherto been under-researched. By exploring this interplay, the thesis contributes with novel insights into, not only the everyday work of site managers, but also the practical underpinnings of some of the prominent characteristics of the construction industry.



coupling work

construction site managers

organizational control

managerial work

embodied work


Zoom (meeting password: 299549)
Opponent: Professor Stefan Tengblad, Center for Global Human Resource Management


Rikard Sandberg

Chalmers, Architecture and Civil Engineering, Construction Management

Working in a loosely coupled system: exploring practices and implications of coupling work on construction sites

Construction Management and Economics,; Vol. 39(2021)p. 212-226

Journal article

Standardizing the free and independent professional: The case of construction site managers in Sweden

Engineering, Construction and Architectural Management,; Vol. 27(2020)p. 1337-1355

Journal article

Sandberg, R. Autonomy paradox and entrapment in the construction industry: the case of overworked site managers. (Manuscript submitted to a scientific journal, undergoing revisions based on reviewers’ comments).

Sandberg, R., Räisänen, C., Löwstedt, M. and Raiden, A. (2018). Liberating the semantics: Embodied work(man)ship in construction. In Sage, D. and Vitry, C., eds. (2018) Societies under construction: Geographies, Sociologies and Histories of Building. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 115-149

Site managers are often said to occupy a central role in the construction industry. They have been described as the hub around which all activities revolve. Yet, their role has also been described in rather contradictory terms: on the one hand, as powerful and autonomous, and on the other hand, as powerless and constrained. What lies behind such a contradictory, Janus-faced description? This thesis proposes some answers to this question. It contributes to research on management and leadership in construction by examining the everyday work of site managers using a practice lens. Inquiries into the lived realities of site managers is further used to examine the practical underpinnings of some of the most prominent characteristics of the construction industry, including its structure, culture, and recent technical and administrative developments. The thesis offers an important contribution by unraveling a complex and paradoxical interplay between industry macro-conditions and micro-level work practices. By exploring this interplay, new insights are gained, not only into the contradictory nature of site-manager work, but also into the existence, reproduction and possibly transformation of the characteristics of the industry.

Subject Categories

Work Sciences

Business Administration



Doktorsavhandlingar vid Chalmers tekniska högskola. Ny serie: 5007



Zoom (meeting password: 299549)


Opponent: Professor Stefan Tengblad, Center for Global Human Resource Management

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