In the car on the M4 (…with some hardcore dance tunes this evening): my transitory dwelling place, my space in-between

car1It was a pleasure to be asked by Work Wise UK to contribute to their guest blogs during their national UK campaign last week – ‘Commute Smart Week’. I have re-posted my piece here, but you can find all the guest blogs via the link below, including pieces by fellow UWE researcher Kiron Chatterjee, Frances O’Grady TUC General Secretary, and Ian McKay Chairman of How’s My Driving:


As Work Wise Commute Smart Week comes to a close, I thought I might write a piece that, I hope, will raise some thoughts and reflections about how and why our commutes might offer a space for escape and freedom. Taking a critical, analytical view here, I offer some thoughts on the commute as a space ‘in-between’ in which we can momentarily break away from the multitude of identities we seek to maintain in contemporary society, and temporarily find a sense of sanctuary in a working world characterized by change and fluidity.


The commute. On a train, on a bus, or in a car. It is a space in-between the dominant spaces of work and home. It is a liminal space. Or is it?

In my paper, ‘Liminality, space and the importance of ‘transitory dwelling places’’ (Shortt, 2015), I argue that spaces in-between – or liminal spaces – become transitory dwelling places when they are made meaningful by workers. I was talking about spaces at work in this paper –  like corridors, stairwells, and toilets. Places in which, as my research shows, workers hang out in order to seek privacy, escape the visibility of work, or hide away with colleagues for snatched conversations away from the open-plan office. But recently, my commute in my car from Bath to Bristol and back seems to be taking on similar characteristics. It’s my little space in-between. My space to escape.

But let’s take a step back a bit – what is a liminal space anyway? Liminal spaces were originally defined by social anthropologists as a period of time/ space ‘in-between’ typically during an individuals’ rite of passage (van Gennep, 1909/1960; Turner, 1974, 1982). More recently however, others have advanced and extended ideas around these sorts of spaces. For example, Sturdy et al (2006) suggest business dinners are liminal spaces and offer individuals opportunities to share secrets, speak honestly and share creative ideas. In a recent text that specifically explores ‘liminal landscapes’, Thomassen, and others, highlight that the, ‘spatial dimensions of liminality can relate to specific places…a doorway…areas or zones…border areas…prisons…airports…’ (2012:26). Connections can be made here to Marc Augé’s discussion of airports (and motorways and hotels) as ‘non-places’ (1995). Augé identified these sorts of spaces as transitory, temporary spaces in which we physically, only momentarily dwell, and as such, and in contrast to ‘places’, they are not concerned with relationships, history or identity (1995:77).

Cultural geographers and tourism studies have also helped to extend these ideas. In these spaces, they suggest, can be found ‘brief moments of freedom and an escape from the daily grind of social responsibilities’ (Preston-Whyte 2004:350). Hotels have been defined as liminal spaces, arguing that these surroundings too are ‘limbo-like’ and afford users and visitors a space in which they may suspend the ‘daily grind’ and where ‘anonymity, romance and adventure’ may be found (Pritchard and Morgan 2006:764). Notably, this somewhat contrasts with Augé’s hotels as ‘non-places’ where he suggests that such transitory spaces lack ‘organic social life’ (1995) – research in this field argues that such liminal spaces are positively rich with social life.

And I would have to agree – these micro-geographies of social life are rich with meaning and significance in everyday working lives. For example, Iedema et al research the corridors of hospitals and have shown how these liminal spaces afford hospital staff, including doctors, nurses and trainees, an important informal, often ‘ad hoc’ environment in which to engage in conversations, teaching and knowledge exchange. Indeed, further studies that explore the health care profession and spatial practices note the use of corridors as key to everyday interactions and communications (Pearce 2003; Peleg 1999). Although there are debates within this literature as to how ethically appropriate it is to conduct such communications in hospital corridors (Hanley 2003), it is clearly acknowledged that corridors, due to their liminal status and ‘precisely because it lack(s) functional definition’ (Iedema et al 2012:43), offer a temporary space for conversations without organizational conventions.

Characteristically then, these liminal spaces are in-between borderlands where boundaries, to some extent, are blurred and are difficult to clearly define, making them semi-private, semi-public. It is in these sorts of undefined spaces we ourselves may then experience being undefined and where our behaviour may be unconstrained by social norms and where we might argue, as Turner suggests ‘anything may happen’ (1974:13). So, this idea could be extended to the commuting space – a car, a train, a bus – we could argue that these are transitory, temporary spaces that offer moments for reflection, freedom and sense of escape. Certainly for me, there is freedom to be found in my car on the way to work. The space to leave the mother/ wife/ home ‘me’ behind and consider the day ahead without interruption. And a space to decompress from the working day, to dissolve and melt the nagging thoughts of the things I haven’t done, before I arrive home and take up my other identities as I walk through the front door. On that journey to and from work I listen to music, the radio, podcasts, and audio books. Sometimes I sit in silence. I don’t like it when I get a call from work when I’m in the car – it’s like work is encroaching on my no-man’s-land (or, rather, no-woman’s land). Here in the car, on my own, I feel I am in some sort of escape pod – I am undefined and I am not ‘worker’ or ‘mother/ wife’ – I can just be. It’s my space.

Indeed, others might agree. Jain and Lyons discuss this very topic in their brilliant paper ‘The gift of travel time’ (2008) where they argue ‘transition time particularly articulates the liminal process of travelling; the potential to adjust and alter between places, such as work and home.  Time and place of departure and destination become blurred, with the journey becoming a nebulous boundary.  Transition time is a gift to the traveller…’ (p.17). Jain and Lyons go on to highlight other studies that suggest a commute allows one to prepare for the destination, be it work or family matters (Davies, 2001; Pearce, 2000) and ‘that women particularly utilize this time to shed the burdens of work and prepare for the demands of home life (Pazy et al., 1996; Richter, 1990)’ (2008:14).

But just as I argue in my liminal spaces paper (Shortt, 2015), as soon as liminal spaces become meaningful – i.e. when they are subjectively experienced as sites for privacy or informal territories or escape pods – then they cease to be liminal anymore. The whole point of a liminal space is that it cannot be defined – that’s what makes it liminal in the first place. So as I suggest, when liminal spaces become meaningful and defined by the user, but still maintain characteristics of being ‘in-between’, they become transitory dwelling places. Thus, my car is now my transitory dwelling place and as Jain and Lyons note, this is my space to adjust and alter between places and identities. It is a vital part of my working day and allows me to create important ‘pauses’ between different roles and (often conflicting) identities. And for that, I am thankful.

So, we might want to take some time to consider what is ‘smart’ about commuting. I would certainly argue that there are huge benefits for not commuting at all, or indeed commuting later or earlier in the day and working more flexible hours, or perhaps using different modes of transport for commuting purposes that create different spaces and places for reflection or ‘time out’. However we choose to commute I would suggest we need to consider why this space might be constructed – or rather re-constructed – as a place for escape and freedom from the daily grind. A ‘smart’ commute might be to create a fruitful no-man’s-land for reflection and transition away from work, away from home, where we can suspend social expectations and norms and just press pause.

Full references available on request…but to find out more about liminal spaces and more specifically, the ‘gift of travel time’, see:

Jain, J. and Lyons, G. (2008) The gift of travel time. The Journal of Transport Geography, 16 (2). pp. 81-89

Pazy, A., Salomon, I. and Pintzov, T., (1996)  The impacts of women’s careers on their commuting behavior: a case study of Israeli computer professionals. Transportation Research Part A  30, pp. 269-286

Pearce, L. (2000)  Devolving Identities: Feminist Readings in Home and Belonging.  London:  Ashgate.

Shortt, H. (2015) ‘Liminality, space and the importance of ‘transitory dwelling places’ at work’ Human Relations, 68 (4) 633 – 65



‘Grounded Visual Pattern Analysis: Photographs in organizational field studies’ – or, ‘what to do with a load of photographs after your fieldwork!’

 sam and harrietI am really pleased and very proud to say that Prof. Samantha Warren and I have finally published our work on visual analysis! Hoorah! This is a picture of us working on the first ideas for the paper, in a café in Spain…no, neither of us look like this anymore and yes, that’s how long it has taken us to get our heads down to write it! But great news – at last – after a very thorough and very supportive review process with Organizational Research Methods, we have had the paper, ‘Grounded Visual Pattern Analysis: Photographs in organizational field studies’ accepted for publication. It is in publication now and will soon be ‘online first’.

I have included the abstract for the paper below but do get in touch if you would like a full copy. I hope this paper will be of use to any visual researchers returning from the field with a load of photographs…and then wonder how to include them all in their analysis! I’d also like to take this opportunity to thank Sam for her support and genius lid-popping moments during the writing process. Sorry it’s taken so long…I did have a baby in the middle of it all…but thanks for the final push – I couldn’t have finished this without you!


Visual methodologies for researching organizational life have grown in popularity over the past decade, with conceptual and methodological foundations now well documented. However, analytical critique has not kept pace and so in this paper, we offer grounded visual pattern analysis (GVPA) as a rigorous means of analysis that mines the discursive meanings of individual photographs and the visual patterns apparent across multiple still images. We illustrate GVPA’s value through an ethnographic field study investigating the relationship between workplace environments and identity formation among hair salon workers in the UK. Specifically, we explain how to combine the strengths of both ‘dialogical’ and ‘archaeological’ approaches to visual research (Meyer et al. 2013), which have hitherto been seen as distinct endeavours. We argue this is particularly valuable in field studies addressing material turns in organization studies, such as studies of space, strategy-as-practice, embodied cognition and servicescape aesthetics. The paper concludes by putting forward a series of potential directions for the future of visual organizational research based on the bridging of Meyer et al.’s (2013) five different methodological approaches.

The Art of Management and Organization conference, Brighton 2018

The first conference I ever went to was back in 2008 – it was the Art of Management conference and it was held in beautiful Banff in the Centre for Arts and Creativity. We stayed in the mountains and it was stunning. I remember being really nervous – it was the first ‘outing’ of my research on hairdressers and space and I practiced and practiced my presentation. I was only two and half years into my PhD and only a few months into my fieldwork – I had some amazing photographs from the hairdressers but wasn’t quite sure what I was going to say about it all…

I shouldn’t have worried so much – it was a great conference full of creative, supportive, off-the-wall, artistic, bold thinking, boundary-pushing people from all over the world, who worked across a whole heap of subjects. Scholars and practitioners came together to re-think, re-write, and build relationships across management and leadership disciplines, all with the ‘arts’ in mind – it was a great experience.

So, 2018. Ten years on. I have been to other conferences – SCOS CMS EGOS and the OS Workshop ….later this month, the Ethnography Symposium but there’s nowhere quite like the Art of Management …

…and I am delighted to be going back, next year, to run a stream with my great friend and colleague Dr Jenna Ward (Leicester) and another colleague Dr Richard Watermeyer (Bath). We are going to be thinking about ‘Researching and Engaging Differently: using the arts in management and organisation studies’ …and here is our call for papers!…

In 2013 Edgar Schein identified six contributions art and the artist can and do make to ‘other elements of society like business and government’ (2013:1). Here we use these six contributions to stimulate ideas, debates and discussions around the role that art and the artists have in broadening and deepening scholarly approaches to researching and engaging differently in management and organisation studies.

Art and Artists stimulate us to see more, hear more, and experience more of what is going on within us and around us.

  • Art does and should disturb, provoke, shock and inspire
  • The artist can stimulate us to broaden our skills, our behavioural repertory, and our flexibility of responses
  • The role of the arts and artists is to stimulate our own aesthetic sense
  • Analysis of how the artist is trained and works can produce insights into what is needed to perform and what it means to lead and manage.
  • Art puts us in touch with our creative self

Indeed, arts-based methods of research, engagement and dissemination, including visual, performative and collaborative forms of enquiry have the power to mobilize and provoke individuals and communities to reflect and engage (Mitchell, 2011). Visual works facilitate reflexivity (Berger, 1972; Sontag, 1977) by situating the individual within. In this way, art has the capacity to engage with tensions and ambiguities whilst holding open possibilities for critical reflection, re-constructing, sense-making and change (Wicks & Rippin, 2010). As Schein identifies, art provokes, shocks and inspires us to see, hear and experience ideas, concepts and contexts differently. In this way, art and artists have the potential to inspire change, or in the vocabulary of the academy – to have impact.

This is not to imply that scholars should engage with art and artists for instrumental, evaluative reasons. Arts-based and visual methods of research have the potential to elicit deeper, more emotional, more reflexive accounts when compared to more traditional approaches to qualitative research, address a variety of power dynamics within the researcher/ participant relationship and are particularly useful in reaching vulnerable or marginalized voices communities and stakeholders.  (see Easterby-Smith et al, 2012; Slutskaya et al, 2012; Ward & Shortt, forthcoming). By way of extension, artistically informed approaches to research have the residual potential not only to elicit richer data but might also engage a wider variety of audiences more readily.

Indeed, a variety of arts have been used in management and organisation research including poetry (Armitage, 2014); textiles (Rippin, 2013), photography (Warren, 2002; Shortt, 2015; Slutskaya et al, 2012; Ray & Smith, 2012); drawing (Vince, 1995, 1996 Stiles, 2004, 2011, 2014; Ward and Shortt, 2012; 2017), film (Wood & Brown, 2012) and knitting (Ahmas & Koivunen, 2017). Each method has begun to speak to the value of exploring “a different way of thinking, feeling and doing” ( It is assumed academics do a lot of the former (thinking) whilst practitioners, stakeholder groups, organisational members, politicians and policy makers a lot of the latter (doing). In this special issue we ask how, why and in what ways does art open up, through feeling, a way of bringing thinking and doing to engage, challenge, provoke and inspire ‘impact’.  In this stream then we ask what role the arts have to play in generating pathways to impact?

In a research and scholarly environment heavily shaped by neo-liberal models of performance management, market forces and quantifiable outcomes, academics face increasing pressures to demonstrate the ‘impact’ their research has both economically and socially. In the UK, the Research Excellence Framework (REF) encourages academic researchers and their institutions to consider, pursue and track the ‘impact’ of their research findings. Impact accounted for 20% of the total REF award in 2014 and will likely increase to 25% for REF2021. Elsewhere, the accrediting body, AACSB (Association to Advance Collegiate Business Schools based in the USA but with international reach) places particular emphasis on the character and reception of research outputs (Pettigrew, 2011) and economic and social impact statements now feature as mandatory sections in all RCUK funding proformas.

Watermeyer (2016:200) defines REF impact as ‘intended to measure the influence of research and the appropriation of its findings by non-academic constituencies’. The impact agenda, instituted largely by REF in the UK, and through other bodies in the United States, Australia and Europe, is a structural attempt to ‘raise the aspirations and deliver forms and processes of knowledge which meet the double hurdle of scholarly quality and policy/practice impact’ (Pettigrew, 2011:347). Whilst there has been much criticism of the impact agenda well-rehearsed in academic forums, both traditional and digital, this is largely beyond the scope of this call for contributions (see Collini 2017; Moriarty 2011; Watermeyer, 2016; and others). Impact, is a pervasive aspect of research performance in the UK and other international sectors and is therefore worthy of our attention in relation to the ways in which it can, and will, inform the ways in which we design research and engage audiences.

Extant discussion on generating ‘impactful’ research was catalysed by Davies et al’s (2005) report on an ESRC symposium on research evaluation in which they identify the need for recognising how different types of research produce different types of knowledge. By and large, this has been reduced to the need for co-produced research. Indeed, as Pettigrew (2011:350) argues, there is a working hypothesis that ‘early and continuing engagement between knowledge producers inside and outside universities increases the probability of policy/practice impact.’ Indeed, the ESRC’s guidelines for impact evaluation recommend ‘prioritisation in establishing relationship and networks with user communities; involving users at all stages of research, well-planned user engagement and knowledge exchange activities’ (Watermeyer, 2016:207). Yet, there is little discussion, guidance or best practice on how these things might be achieved. As a scholarly community, we arguably need a better strategic approach to determining impact than ‘serendipity’ (Pettigrew, 2011).

A first step to having, and therefore being able to track and evidence, ‘impact’ is to make audiences, communities and organisations aware of research findings and for them to critically engage with them. This is broadly what is understood by user-engagement and knowledge exchange activity. Whilst engagement activities of this kind are not, in and of themselves, impact, they are seen to be a pathway to potential impact. Traditional scholarly routines require academics to write for their peers, but as Robinson (2013) points out this means ‘they have seldom been confronted by the necessity to explain themselves in the accepted sense or to justify their endeavours in the broadest terms’ (Robinson, 2013: page). If we want our research to have impact we need to start thinking and engaging differently in the way we communicate our findings and engage our audiences.

This stream will build on emergent themes in management and organisation studies to develop and explore the ways in which the arts can be embedded into research design to open up the discipline to alternative ways of researching and engaging with a view to developing impact. Papers may explore alternative forms of identifying research questions or foci, for example co-production methods; alternative methods of research and or alternative and creative methods of disseminating knowledge, engaging audiences, stakeholders, communities and societies and finally offer alternative qualitative approaches to evaluating ‘impact’. This special issue may enable us to move from asking ‘what impact has my research had?’ to ‘how can my research design enable affective change for knowledge beneficiaries / research user constituencies?’ We encourage submissions and contributions that explicate practical aspects of engaging with the arts in management and organisation studies and management learning and education along with those that engage in critical theoretical debates around the role the arts can play in a greater imagining of ‘impact’ and public engagement with academic research.

We therefore welcome contributions that address some of the following:

  • What role can art play in a greater imagining of public engagement practices between social scientists and non-academic publics?
  • Who can be engaged in and with organisational research through the arts? What are the challenges, limitations and practicalities?
  • Practices of and responses to embedding the arts into management inquiry?
  • The extent to which art and artists have a role in contemporary management/ business schools? And if so, in what capacity?
  • How can engaging with arts-based methods of research and engagement shape research designs and impact strategies?
  • What is the relationship between artistic approaches to research and dissemination and processes of impact generation?
  • What skills, processes, infrastructures, relationships and networks can management and organisation scholars develop, by working across disciplines such as fine and performance arts and design?

If you would like to discuss your article prior to submission please contact; or

Abstracts of no more than 500 words, in word.doc format, should be submitted as an email attachment by 1 December 2017 to and to, as stream convener. All decisions will be made on the basis of the abstracts submitted. For those in need of a fully refereed conference paper, a deadline for submission will be communicated a little closer to the conference.


Ahmas, K. & Koivunen, N. (2017) Guerilla knitting: An emerging approach to organize a museum project, Organizational Aesthetics, 57-79

Armitage, A. (2014) Poetry and the Silence of Working Life, Journal of Critical Organizational Inquiry, 21(1): 24

Davies, H., Nutley, S. & Walter, I. (2005) Approaches to assessing the non-academic impact of social science research, ESRC Symposium Report

Mitchell, C. (2011) Doing Visual Research, Sage: London

Pettigrew, A.M. (2011) Scholarship with Impact, British Journal of Management, 22(?):347-354

Ray, J, and Smith, A. (2012) ‘Using Photographs to Research Organizations: Evidence, Considerations, and Application in a Field Study’ Organizational Research Methods, 15, 288-315.

Rippin, A. (2013) Putting the Body Shop in its place: A studio-based investigation into the new sites and sights of organization as experience. Organization Studies. 34 (10):1551-1562

Schein, E.H. (2013) The Role of Art and the Artist, Organizational Aesthetics, 2(1):1-4

Slutskaya, N., R. Simpson, J. Hughes (2012) ‘Lessons from photoelicitation: encouraging working men to speak’ Qualitative Research in Organizations and Management, 7, 16-33.

Shortt, H. (2015) ‘Liminality, space and the importance of ‘transitory dwelling places’ at work’, Human Relations, 68, 633-658.

Stiles, D. (2004) Pictorial Representation in Catherine Cassell and Gillian Symon (eds.) Essential Guide to Qualitative Methods in Organizational Research, London: Sage pp127-139

Stiles, D. (2011) Disorganization, disidentification and ideological fragmentation: verbal and pictorial evidence from a British business school, Culture and Organization, 17(1):5-30

Stiles, D. (2014) ‘Drawing as a method of organizational analysis’, in S. Warren, E. Bell, and J. Schroeder (eds.) The Routledge Companion to Visual Organization, Oxon: Routledge. pp227-242

Vince, R. (1995) Working with emotions in the change process: using drawings for team diagnosis and development, Organisations and People, 2(1):11-17

Vince, R. & Broussine, M. (1996) Paradox, Defense and Attachment: Accessing and Working with Emotions and Relations Underlying Organizational Change, Organization Studies, 17(1):1-21

Ward, J. & Shortt, H. (2012) Evaluation in Higher Education: A visual approach to drawing out emotion in student learning’, Management Learning, 44(5):435-452

Warren, S. (2002) ‘Show me how it feels to work here: Using photography to research organizational aesthetics’ ephemera: theory and politics in organizations, 2, 224-245.

Watermeyer, R. (2016) Impact in the REF: issues and obstacles, Studies in Higher Education, 41(2):199-214

Wicks, G. & Rippin, A. (2010) Art as experience: An inquiry into art and leadership using dolls and doll-making, Leadership, 6(3): 259-278

Wood, M. & Brown, S. (2012),”Film-based creative arts enquiry: qualitative researchers as auteurs”, Qualitative Research Journal, 12(1): 130 – 147


Bridging the gap between business and academia

I’m really proud to have taken on two new roles at work over the past few months: Bristol Business School has launched the Bristol Business Engagement Centre and I’m one of the new Subject Business Associates – working with the new Director, Dr Noordin Shehabuddeen. And I am now the liaison for the Business School and the Small Business Charter. Exciting times! I’m also proud to have been featured in the latest blog on the Small Business Charter’s webpage:

The University of the West of England (UWE Bristol) has set up a team of academic experts whose job is to provide a pathway between its Bristol Business School and SMEs. 

The success and growth of SMEs is crucial to an economic recovery in the UK and one way to achieve this is with the help of academic institutions like the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol).

To help achieve this and provide SMEs with a pathway to academics, alumni and students, the university’s Bristol Business School has set up a team of Subject Business Associates (SBAs), from disciplines covering accounting and finance, economics, human resource management, law, marketing, leadership, and strategy and management.

These academics devote up to two days a week to engage with the business community and help SMEs deal with business challenges. New knowledge gained is then filtered back into Bristol Business School’s teaching and curriculum.

Through the SBAs, businesses can call upon academics for collaborative research, consultancy, and executive education. They are also able to tap into UWE Bristol’s extensive contact list of alumni and business networks for collaboration opportunities. SMEs can also benefit from the university’s student body by taking on placement candidates, interns, and hiring undergraduates to work on live projects or undertake Pro Bono work (in the case of the Bristol Business School, this includes law and marketing services provided for free in exchange for work experience).

A typical area where an SME could benefit from the knowledge and experience held within Bristol Business School might be when it plans to expand. “When SMEs go from being a small business to a medium-sized company, they often encounter challenges relating to people, marketing or finance,” says Lucy Wicksteed, who is Senior Research Business Development Manager at UWE Bristol. “We want to ensure SMEs are equipped in those areas to enable them to grow.”

Dr Harriet Shortt is Senior Lecturer in Bristol Business School’s Leadership and Change Centre and is one of eight SBAs. “The role of SBA is an important way of joining up the dots between teaching, research and business engagement,” she says.

Shortt, who is liaison officer between UWE Bristol and the Small Business Charter, specialises in workspace research and how space influences staff wellbeing and everyday working practices. She is currently working with Work Wise UK, a not-for-profit development organisation that explores how the country’s workforce can work smarter and more productively.

The organisation also produces standards of excellence regarding the adoption of smarter working practices. Dr Shortt is helping refresh these standards, taking into account the current labour force landscape, which increasingly combines both ageing staff and millennials. As working-from-home or flexi-time become common practice, part of Shortt’s role is to think about how Work Wise’s standards can apply to SMEs. “In an SME of 20 people, if all staff members want to work flexibly you might have a more complicated way of working compared to a large corporation, where there are many more staff,” she explains.

Shortt says a big part of her role as an SBA is also to help students. “The better the connections we have with organisations, the more placements we can set up and in this way we can inspire students to enter specific industries,” says Shortt. “This is amplified when industry leaders come and speak at the university.”

Jeremy Allen is a Writer and Content Developer at Bristol Business School, University of West of England

Original article can be found here: along with more information about the Small Business Charter and its work with UK Business Schools, driving innovation and growth in the domestic economy.

A few reflections on my new work space: dressing up, talking on the stairs, and missing the corridor

I write about liminal spaces at work – the spaces ‘in-between’ where people meet for ad-hoc conversations, where people hide and escape the gaze of others, where the serendipitous meetings between people provide opportunity for creative thinking. It’s not about the defined spaces at work – the office, the meeting room or the classroom, it’s about the corridors, the toilets, the corners and the stairwells – that’s where good, interesting and meaningful stuff happens. And if there is one thing I like about my new workplace, it’s the conversations I’ve been having in some of the liminal spaces.

A few weeks ago, after the Easter weekend, Bristol Business School and Bristol Law School opened the doors to its new £55m building on the Frenchay campus at UWE. It has been years in the planning and finally, after a delay in building work over Christmas, our crates had been packed, our old offices emptied and our new home sparkly home was ready for occupation.

Two weeks before that we had said goodbye to our 1970s asbestos filled Felixstowe Court. Yes, it was on the grubby side, yes it was rough round the edges, and yes it was a slightly awkward sort of space that certainly didn’t scream ‘welcome to our business school – a place of cutting edge research and teaching’ but it was ours and there were many mixed feelings about leaving it behind.  There were also many mixed feelings about what the new space would hold too.

So, we are a few weeks in and the new building is still a huge talking point and I thought I’d get something down about how I feel about it so far. I’m sure I’ll write about this again and I’d like to spend a bit of time thinking about dear old Felixstowe Court too – I can still see it from my new office, dwarfed by the shadows of our 7 floored mansion, empty and unloved – but not forgotten.

In the meantime, and in my opinion, three interesting things have happened in the new building:

The building is making me dress differently: Well, it’s making me dress in a way that I associate with pre-maternity leave! Maybe I have been waiting for a tipping point since returning to work after the birth of my daughter, waiting for some sort of excuse to get my heels out again and actually consider if my earrings match my lipstick…which also match my bag. It’s been a funny old year back after maternity leave and my wardrobe (and figure) still don’t quite feel back to normal. But in the last few weeks I have found myself really considering what I’m going to wear to work. I have found myself digging out outfits that I haven’t worn in over 2 years – and I love it. I feel like I’m getting back to the old me and I am enjoying wearing old clothes that now feel like new. I’m not sure if it’s because the building feels WAY more corporate – which it is – I feel I need to ‘match’ it and ‘look the part’. Or whether it’s a case of new space = an excuse to have new clothes; it’s like when you start a new job or a new academic term and you feel compelled to go out and buy new stationary to mark the occasion. All this links to the argument that different spaces we occupy can influence how we dress ourselves and adorn our bodies – research that argues our spatial encounters are embodied experiences. There are links between the corporeal and the social and ‘the materiality of the world influences and shapes us as irreducibly embodied and spatial social beings’ (Dale and Burrell, 2008, p.217; and see Lefebvre, 1991). But I wonder what time does to this experience? When something or somewhere is new and sparkly we might feel the need to ‘match it’ through our dress, but what happens when that space isn’t so new anymore? As we bed into a space and it becomes more familiar, how does our experience of it change and how might that influence our choice of dress or how we present ourselves? I wonder what I’ll be wearing to work in a year’s time?

For the time being at least, I’m enjoying being proud of the new building, proud of meeting our business visitors in the atrium, proud of arriving to those meetings in heels, and proud of walking a little bit taller in this space – now it DOES scream ‘welcome to our business school – a place of cutting edge research and teaching’.

How we share space has changed: the building has been designed and built with collaboration and transparency in mind and I can certainly say that has been achieved. In dear old Felixstowe Court we had academic offices that were always open to students but they were in a separate building to teaching and learning spaces – and there were no ‘break out’ spaces or flexible ‘pods’ for people to meet or work in. Now, break out spaces are everywhere and our offices are next door to teaching rooms. Staff and students are side by side. In some ways this is important, useful and inclusive – we should share and enjoy this new space as members of the same university, the same faculty. However, and this is really a key issue in my eyes, staff have, as yet, been unable to colonise a space for themselves that’s outside their office walls – there are no clear staff kitchens (the students are using the kitchen areas on each floor and they’ve labelled their milk in the fridge), there are no clear staff toilets (I met one of my dissertation students by the sinks in the loo as I was hitching up my tights), and there are no clear staff break out spaces (the students use most of them – lounging across sofas with their shoes off, laptops on and headphones in – clearly hanging out here because this building is probably WAY nicer than their student digs). As yet, there is nowhere for us to go to have meetings about students/ student issues/ module development without the students over-hearing. And this is a problem – professionally these conversations should not be within ear-shot of students. It is Henri Lefebvre (a French philosopher) who talks about the contradictory nature of space in his work on the Social Production of Space. He says that space can be both exclusionary and inclusionary at the same time (1991, p.294) and that’s what’s happening here – this space both includes staff and students as collaborators of teaching and learning, but excludes staff who wish to (or rather need to) meet without the presence of their students. From what I hear, new signage is currently being discussed.

I am also conscious that we share space with ‘things’ – objects, things and bits that make a space, in my view, human and occupied. Lived. At the moment I need more of this in the new building – although I thought the individual ‘welcome pack’ on each desk when we moved in was a super touch (picture above of ‘personalised mug and biscuits). My office is bigger than before, but I’d like to have my lovely PhD wall hanging put up on the wall; the atrium space is vast and light but I’d like to see some living trees break it up a bit, soften it; I like the green space outside the building but I’d like to see some benches and bedding flowers and a few of my colleagues walking their dogs then taking them back up to their offices to sit under their desks. I’d like to see more books, more symbols of learning, I’d like to see more pictures on the walls, especially in the classrooms. This is a key theme that crops up in my research ALL the time – the sense of identity in otherwise shared, fluid and transparent spaces – and it often gets overlooked in favour of clear desk policies, consistency and standardisation. I remember a participant in one of my research projects at a Government Agency, where I was looking at the impact of new open-plan working spaces, took a photograph of a huge sombrero hat on top of a coat stand in the office. She told me it reminded her that humans, not robots work here. I hope in the months to come we see a little more of the human creeping in…and a sombrero hat or two.

The bits in-between ARE important: already the ad-hoc conversations that I have had halfway up the stairs have been fruitful (see picture of the main staircase above). I love that everyday I’ve been in I have accidently bumped into someone along one of the new walkways, or in the lift, or on the main staircase and we’ve had the opportunity to briefly catch up on life, that email, that meeting, or that thing we never finished talking about last time. It is in liminal spaces like these that we experience work getting done and decisions being made and that should be valued. I guess this is partly down to the visible and transparent nature of the design – I’ve literally SEEN more people since we’ve moved in and I’m enjoying that. But I do need some time out and however much we embrace collaborative working spaces and aspects of open-plan building design, we do need to be able to remove ourselves from the gaze of others once in awhile. And yes, privacy plays a part in that – now my office has a glass window one end and a glass door the other (Foucault, as my Head of Group remarked, would have a field day) and everyone who passes by can see me touching up my make-up and even when hitching up your tights in the loo you run the risk of bumping into the student you were just having a meeting with. But it’s not just about privacy, it’s about escape and the new building has prompted me to start thinking about what this means – escaping isn’t just about hiding and privacy, it’s about the ability to withdraw from work or people or anything else feels sort of ‘visually demanding’. Being able to withdraw, even for just 5 minutes in the day gives you a ‘moment’, it gives you a breather, just a moment to reflect, think and catch up with yourself. Sometimes I just want to shut off for a minute. But I haven’t found a space to do that yet. In addition to all this, there is a liminal space that I miss – the corridor itself. In Felixstowe Court each subject cluster fitted loosely into a corridor of staff offices and that corridor became, for our subject group (Organisation Studies) a transitory sort of space where you could bump into each other and talk. That space has now gone and outside our offices there are open-plan spaces currently occupied by students. It just doesn’t feel the same – not bad per se, just not the same. We used to leave our doors open and wander in and out and talk across the corridor. We’d talk about children and challenges, about house renovations and relationships, we’d talk about meetings, TV shows, holidays and we could swear and we could cry. I’m yet to see how and where we might have some of these sorts of conversations in the new building – these interactions were (are) vital to our sense of well-being.

So, these are some of my reflections thus far. In the meantime, the whole thing still feels a bit like when you leave your shared student house and move into your own place – you’ve got loads more space and you run about from room to room thinking ‘it’s all mine!!!!’. You spend lots of time rearranging things and decide that you must go out and buy a few plants – and this time you WILL keep them alive. You suddenly want to invite all your friends round for a housewarming and arrange mini tours for each of them. And despite NEVER washing up in your student house, you find yourself keeping everything tidy and clean…well, for now at least.

A coffee and a chinwag with Mo

Yesterday I had coffee with one of my former students, Mo. He’s now a member of staff at Bristol Business School and a PhD student, and I’m proud to call to call him a colleague and a friend. He often remarks that I inspired him with regards to his studies and his thirst for academic work. He remembers that I gave his first lecture in his first year on his first day at university. He tells me he has kept feedback I wrote on his work 6 years ago. He’s now doing a fabulous PhD (in a different subject group to me) on organisational archives and is being supervised by the fabulous Charles Booth. But yesterday it was Mo that inspired me.

We met for coffee in our new business school building and sat in the window of the Atrium Café. The title of our meeting in Outlook was ‘Chinwag’ and the main aim was to gossip about people, places, things and recent changes at work. But quite by accident the conversation took a different turn and ended up being rather like a coaching/mentoring session (for me at least!) and it was really refreshing. There is nothing quite like a former student, now fresh into the weird world of academia, sitting in front of you reflecting back what they see in you – the great, the good and the questionable. I’m not sure how often really honest conversations happen at work, least of all when they are about the choices you make, the perception others have of you, and what people really think of your potential. Our conversation went to lots of places and as much as I would have happily continued into the late afternoon, the moderation of undergraduate dissertations called…

As I went back to my office I found myself thinking about one topic in particular  – how I might spend more focussed time on building up an external profile. Mo had talked about how my research ‘gets out there’ to a bigger audience, how I might inspire others with what I say, how I might engage with the outside world and take my expertise out of the university walls and make my stuff matter. I had talked about my experience of imposter syndrome, my rather uncomfortable feelings about being seen as an ‘expert’, and my fear of failure. He asked me about my blog and why I’d stopped writing. I answered that it had turned into something that I found difficult – it had started as a joyful activity; the freedom of writing about work/ creative stuff (without the academic referencing!) but had morphed into apprehensive it’s-got-to-be-perfect writer’s block.

He told me to get over myself – that these sorts of patterns of thinking are sabotaging my creativity and potential, that opportunity shies away from neediness. Then we both laughed. But he’s right. And so are others that I have talked to about similar things in the past. But there was just something about Mo saying it. Something about someone who treads fine lines between colleague and friend, someone who knows your work but not your field, someone you trust but don’t see on a regular basis, someone who lives a different life to yours but appreciates the world you’re in. And someone who offers a new view with no other agenda. I think everyone needs a Mo. Everyone needs a coffee and a chinwag with someone who treads that fine line.

With all this in mind – it’s about time I got over myself (or at least the writer’s block) and got back on the blog.

ShorttCuts #2: “Hairdressers in the wider public health workforce …or, why we shouldn’t assume hairdressers only talk about holidays!”

wider public health workforce

So, for the first time in 6 months (!) I sit in front of my dusty and neglected blog and think about all the wonderful writing I was going to do on maternity leave… all those projects, plans and musings that were going to fill the nap times and keep me connected to work related things… hmmm, clearly not so much! Hanging out with my daughter was far interesting…

But here I am, 2 weeks in to being back at work. New routines have begun; nursery drop offs, juggling work and motherhood, nursery pick ups …and old routines have returned; marking summer exams, writing external examiner reports and teaching prep for September (already). So now feels like a good time to polish the virtual dust off this blog and get writing again…and true to form, I’m thinking about hairdressers…

A few weeks ago a friend of mine, who owns a beauty salon, sold her business and I happened to spend part of her last day at the shop watching the clients of over 11 years come and say goodbye. It was an emotional day. Loyal clients came and went, dropping off flowers of thanks, gifts and cards. Probably one of the most common phrases I heard from those who dropped in was ‘what am I going to do?!’ …there was a sense of loss in their voices… ‘where will I go now?’, ‘who will I talk to?’, ‘who can I really trust?’. I half expected them to finish with a crack in their voice and cry ‘WHY ARE YOU LEAVING ME?!’

Genuine bonds and friendships had clearly been formed and in this well-documented ‘intimate’ industry (see Paula Black’s book The Beauty Industry, 2004) clients are left bereft of a regular confidant, a frequent counsellor, an advisor for life, love, health and family.

I left the shop to the sound of clinking glasses and the popping of farewell champagne. The next day I was in my regular hair salon (which happens to be opposite my friends shop), with Emma, my hairdresser. Over foils, bleach and tea we talked about the shop closing and how and why clients become long term friends. We made comparisons with hairdressing and once again came back round to acknowledging how this intimate work creates trusted bonds – not just in terms of the work done (lots of us know how hard it is to find a good hairdresser!), but what the relationship itself offers clients.

From articles in the Sunday Times (see Blasberg’s article in the Magazine, 2006, pp.137 – 138) to academic research (see Gimlin, 1996; Black, 2004; Cohen, 2010), for years many have recognised the in-depth and close relationship that often develops within this physically intimate service encounter. In my own research I found mobile hairdressers in particular become heavily involved in family life and the boundary between client and friend becomes blurred and fuzzy. Many of the hairdressers I have worked with talk about the personal, private, emotional parts of their work and how deeply involved they have become in the lives of those sat in their chairs – support through divorces, guidance through pregnancy, coaching through career breaks. And at times, this can be a reciprocal relationship; one hairdresser I worked with in London briefly moved in with one of his clients whilst his divorce was finalised.

Thinking about all this reminded me of one of the stereotypes hairdressers often live with –  hairdressers only talk about where you’re going on holiday. They don’t. At least not the ones I have met during my research …and I was pleased to find that a recent report (2015) by the Royal Society for Public Health has recognised something similar in this valuable relationship hairdressers can have with their clients. The report, ‘Rethinking the Wider Public Health Workforce’ suggests that hairdressers (and firemen and postal workers) could help form a wider public health workforce and positively impact health and well-being through their work. The idea here is partly based on the fact that these workers see clients on a regular basis, have often formed close, long-term relationships already and have opportunities to initiate conversations about health and well-being in a sensitive and non-judgemental way.

Given the current health crisis in the UK and with an under-resourced public health workforce, this report calls for action and highlights those professions that could help make a big difference …and I’m all for it. I think there is a real opportunity here and I think Blasberg was right when he said, ‘Hairdressers have gone up in the world and are no longer regarded as tedious mane-crimpers you are forced to discuss your holiday plans with every six weeks…they are pioneering a new status, mixing beauty maintenance with friendship, pride and dependence…’ (2006). Many hairdressers are already a core part of communities across the country, already offering support to members of those communities…if, with appropriate training, they can enhance that support by acting as signposts to health advice and services, then surely that can only be a good thing.

For more information and for the report itself see: