Unformed thoughts on doing ‘work’ – 1 August

I was sitting in my office, which I actually really like (for reasons which may be explained in a bit), when I began writing this post – thinking about the tendency at present for sitting alone in an office to be the sort of ‘everyday’ norm. I suspect this is a common experience for many academics. I also recognise that it is actually a privilege to have my own office, something I really do value, but that’s not the focus of this post. I am also near certain that others have written much the same thing before in different guises. What I want to do is argue for the keeping or reinstating of ‘common rooms’, not for nostalgic reasons but for pragmatic ones.

Summer working in a building that is mostly empty, and so sitting alone quite a bit of the time, makes me think about the nature of my job at present. It also prompts me to remember what it was like five years ago when I started the job I currently have. It makes me think of the stripping away of things that some might think of as quaint, old fashioned, out-of-date and superfluous but I tend to think might actually be really important to the efficient functioning of academic institutions.

We used to have a “Senior Common Room” at the end of my corridor. It was just the one, shared, PGR/staff ‘common room’ for a very large building (the Amory building, in Exeter, is a warren and is home to about seven departments) but it had a little café, the people that worked there were nice – you knew them by name, and it meant that colleagues would gravitate there.

This was a space colleagues would choose to go to. Where possible, patterns I had become used to in other institutions were sort of observed – people would go for coffee around 10:45, some still do, and often arrange to be there for lunch too. This was a room in which you would feel comfortable to take a visiting academic, you may well bump into colleagues. You could learn what others are working on, maybe share tips about mundane teaching issues (the speakers in that seminar room still don’t work etc). Some years ago I doorstepped a colleague at a London university whilst killing time in advance of an event and was taken to a nice, if well-worn, common room and we bumped into colleagues and I learned things I do not think I otherwise would have.

Now, this post is not merely the yearnings of a privileged white male academic pining for a time that only really existed, and was sent up, in campus novels by Bradbury and Lodge. Neither do I want to rehearse that peculiar line about how academic life is special and different. I think many of the issues here are relatable to other kinds of work. Nevertheless, I do think that the kinds of work we do are made better, work better, if we are able to talk and share ideas in ways that are conducive to that communcation taking place. While I think they help – I do not think that a social media channel or email list is sufficient. I guess, this post is also prompted by an anecdote that I’d like to relate, something I observed a while ago but that has stayed with me.

I was looking for our relocated administrators, now no longer ‘geography’ but paired back and blitzed together into a ‘hub’ for the whole building (yes, all seven departments). I was dithering along an unfamiliar corridor on another floor of my building, following room numbers, when I happened across a group of academics talking. Mugs in hand they were stood speaking in semi-hushed tones, somewhat conspiratorially. As I came closer and overheard their conversation it was the usual sort of mix of teaching and research chat. I passed on, in search of the elusive administrators. Having completed my task and returned down the corridor I again passed the group of colleagues stood in the same place talking. Around 15 minutes later I needed to return to the admin office and so strode more confidently back down the same corridor to find the group of colleagues had been augmented by a couple and an impromptu, semi-casual, research meeting was taking place.

I suppose the reason this brief, fairly unremarkable, episode has stuck with me is that this is the reality of working in my building. You talk in corridors, there is nowhere else to go. The ‘common room’ is still sort of there. It has shrunk to accommodate further offices and has been redecorated in the soulless corporate style you will recognise if you work in a university. There are no facilities – so you need to find one of the small kitchens to make your own tea or coffee in advance. We can book seminar rooms for meetings, but that requires notice and you’re told off if you are caught taking in your coffee. Of course teaching rooms are not necessarily conducive to certain kinds of discussion either, with rows of tables and so on.

In the meantime, the building is subject to wall-shaking redevelopment to accommodate the new student ‘hub’, taking the place of our departmental offices. There will be a café and social space for the students. So, many of us drink coffee and eat lunch at our desks and will continue to do so. Some go to the cafés on campus, but I find them rather expensive and it wastes a lot of time with crossing campus and queuing. It is also tacitly clear that these facilities are not intended for staff, they are really for students.

Quite a lot of colleagues work from home when they do not ‘have to’ be on campus. This is difficult for me. We no longer have a ‘spare’ room and so I sit at a desk in the corner of the kitchen. I have no space to store work-related things and so when working from home I have to remember to bring books etc. back and forth in my bag. It is by no means terrible but I find it hard to work from home. I like having an office – all of the things it enables. I would like to bump into colleagues more too. Sitting alone in an office is helpful for concentration and ‘getting things done’ but it is not helpful if it’s the only thing you do. It can be isolating. I value those times when colleagues take the initiative and knock on the door to chat but it can also be an inconvenient moment, with a crying student etc.

Space to meet is, I think, important for a happy and effective working environment in a university department. It also requires a commitment from us, the ‘workers’ to perform the function of commonality – we need to make the time. A common refrain is that there is no time, and I suspect that really is true for many, but even if it’s just once a week, or every so often, I’d like to think that taking the time to be with colleagues and to learn about what they’re doing is an uncontroversially positive thing to do. If we also argue for a little more time to enable this, then all sorts of positive research collaborations, teaching innovations and so on might actually arise – not because of top-down pressure from a person with “chancellor” in their job title but because we actually like to do our jobs.

I am not arguing for the reinstatement of some sort of peculiar system in which a particular class of academic staff can remain aloof in their “Senior Common Room”. I am arguing that, given the kinds of work we do, providing a space to talk, to connect – actually makes us more healthy and more productive. I would also argue that, as lovely as they can be, sometimes you just need to do this away from the students.

For all we might (perhaps rightly) castigate and deride companies like Google, they do understand and take seriously that people work better when there are common spaces and facilities to support less-formal ways of being together. It leads to more productive workers, I am confident that they wouldn’t be doing it otherwise – however ‘cool’ it might look.

So, a modest plea – fight for your common room and use it. I don’t think I’ve taken that seriously enough, so I’ll try too. We don’t know what we’ve got til it’s gone.

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