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.

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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.